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Cloud of uncertainty over Hurricanes as Quebec beckons

A move to Quebec may be the only viable option for the Carolina Hurricanes, who are for sale with few interested buyers.

It hasn’t been a particularly productive summer for the Carolina Hurricanes. Sure, they had a solid draft, grabbing highly touted defenseman Noah Hanifin along with Finnish forward Sebastian Aho, and they banished frustrating forward Alexander Semin via an expensive but necessary buyout. Beyond that though? Not a lot to write about. There were no significant trades or free-agent acquisitions to bolster a lineup that finished a dismal 14th in the Eastern Conference last season, and there were no new contracts for pending free agents Eric Staal and Cam Ward, setting up a season of uncertainty for the two franchise legends.

And those aren’t the only clouds hanging over the organization. There’s also the long-running and so far futile attempt by owner Peter Karmanos to sell some or all of his stake in the team.

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Karmanos announced last summer that he was looking to divest himself of the Hurricanes for something around $400 million after more than 20 years of ownership. “I’m 71 years old, and at 71 you start planning stuff like that,” Karmanos said at the time. “I’m looking for the proper way to make sure the team has continuity, hopefully with people in North Carolina.”

Those are noble succession plans, but finding those people hasn’t been easy. As Luke DeCock reported in the News-Observer on Wednesday, there was a group of local investors circling the team for a time but they eventually backed away due to Karmanos’ insistence on retaining some level of control after the sale, similar to Charles Wang’s two-year succession plan after his own sale of the New York Islanders in 2014.

There have been other assorted tire kickers along the way, but none who appeared to be seriously interested. “We’ve entertained some people here, but as we sit here right now, there’s nobody I can identify and say it’s a strong group to buy the team or a piece of it from Mr. Karmanos,” team president Don Waddell told DeCock.

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It’s easy to understand the tepid interest. After six consecutive playoff DNQs, the Canes are a diminishing asset on the local sports scene. The team ranked 29th in attendance in the NHL last season with an average of just 12,594, down nearly 3,000 from 2013-14 and ahead only of Florida. Season ticket sales dropped a staggering 23%, leading to a 67.4% building capacity. That's ugly.

And Raleigh’s far from being a large city. Despite Karmanos’s intentions, at some point the pool of local options will be exhausted. And that opens the door, at least slightly, to relocation.

As DeCock notes, “The Hurricanes aren’t the only candidate to move, but they’re the only team with a for-sale sign in the yard at the moment.” And anyone who is listening knows there have been rumors linking the Canes to Quebec City for months. It’s nothing concrete, but there’s an easy leap in logic. Quebecor, the group behind the QC expansion bid, has already expressed a willingness to pay $500 million for the right to a seat at the big kids’ table and their choice of a few limp bodies off the NHL scrap heap. If the opportunity arose to procure a functioning organization with some exceptional promise on the back end (Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury, Hanifin) along with a few other solid assets for a lesser investment, you know they’d be interested. And by allowing them to purchase an existing team in the East, the league could avoid the ridiculous situation of placing a Quebec expansion team in the West for the sake of balancing the conferences.

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Admittedly, at this point that all seems unlikely. After all, the league has shown a resistance to relocation except under the most the most irredeemable conditions. That’s not the case in Raleigh, a city that has shown that it can be not just supportive but passionate when the product on the ice is deserving. Fans there are just not willing to fill a building for lousy hockey, especially when the average ticket price has increased by nearly 50% over the past four seasons and by 17% last season alone.

Here’s the problem: With a rebuild in full swing, the forecast calls for a lot more lousy hockey. That’s going to make the team a tougher sell. And with the lingering ownership situation hanging over the franchise, it seems more likely that the Hurricanes will move Staal rather than risk saddling a potential buyer with a hefty contract commitment. Which means more lousy hockey.

It all points a tough road ahead for Karmanos and his succession plan.

Maybe Quebec City isn’t out of the question after all.

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