By Stu Hackel
For a few years now, every time NHL executives have been questioned about the possibility of the league returning a team to Quebec City, they've responded the same way: There are no teams available right now, and even if there were, the absence of a suitable arena makes it unlikely. But all that changed on Sunday when the city's mayor and a corporate executive signed a long-anticipated deal on a new building. Ground is scheduled to be broken this fall and the arena will be ready in the fall of 2015.
That's not an insignificant date. It coincides with the expiration of the lease that keeps the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. Of course, it's also possible that the team now known as the Phoenix Coyotes will be ready at that time to move into the new Quebecor Colisee. The new Nordiques (or whatever they will be called) will have played the intervening three years in the old Pepsi Colisee, which is scheduled to get $7 million in emergency improvements starting this spring.
Of course, the Coyotes could move elsewhere, or maybe not move at all. And it's possible that Quebec City's new arena will not have an NHL tenant when it opens. But considering the delirious return of the NHL to Winnipeg last year, not too many people believe the league will forego a chance to create more delirium as soon as it can.
"Today, the dream becomes a reality," Quebec Mayor Regis Labeaume told reporters at a news conference. But he and Pierre-Karl Péladeau -- the President and CEO of Quebecor Inc., Quebecor Media Inc. and the Sun Media Corporation whose company has secured naming and management rights for the new building -- refused on Sunday to talk about an NHL team playing out of their new 18,000 seat building. They've certainly been warned enough times by the NHL that if you build it, there is no guarantee that we will come. And, as Sean Gordon of The Globe and Mail observed a couple of weeks ago, "If there is a treasure map that points the way to the promised land of NHL ownership, it was sketched by the people behind the Winnipeg Jets. Its key directions: play nice, stay out of the papers, bide your time, and the opportunity will reveal itself."
And yet, Quebecor may have slipped a bit earlier this month when their consolidated financial results for 2011 were disclosed. “As we review the events of 2011, we must also note the final agreement on management and naming rights to the future arena in Québec City, for an initial 25‑year period. Quebecor Media now has all the tools it needs to pursue its goals, which are to manage a world‑class multipurpose center and to bring a National Hockey League team to Québec City."
Another slip of sorts came just before the new arena announcement, when Steve Simmons of Péladeau's Toronto Sun reported on Saturday that Patrick Roy -- whose name had prominently entered the rumor mill as the next GM or coach of the Montreal Canadiens -- was quite unlikely to take that job considering that he's quietly been on retainer from "Quebec NHL interests for almost two years."
Now, there are supposedly two groups that would bid on ownership of a team in Quebec, as Bob McKenzie discussed Monday morning on TSN Radio 990 in Montreal (audio), one group being Péladeau's. (It includes former Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut, who is now president of the Canadian Olympic Committee). We know nothing about the second group. Given the fact that Simmons works for one of Péladeau's newspapers, the dots between Roy and Quebecor beg to be connected.
Yes, Roy remains a hero in Montreal, thanks to the half of his career that he spent as the Canadiens' goaltender, and this rotten season for the Habs left fans crying out for a hero to rescue them. But Quebec City is Roy's home town and he owns, operates and coaches the QMJHL Quebec Remparts junior team. Quebec is where he's most comfortable and more likely to be cut some slack by fans who are grateful to have NHL hockey back, if it does come back. Compare them to the fans in Montreal, some of whom are still bitterly carrying on the Jaroslav Halak-Carey Price debate even though Halak has been the Blues' goalie for two seasons.
So how likely is Quebec to get an NHL club next season? The picture is cloudy right now, but it could start to clear soon. Last week, TSN's Darren Dreger tweeted (here and here) that the NHL would start looking at other options if there is no progress in a sale of the Coyotes that would keep them in Glendale. The Phoenix Business Journal has identified two groups that are still trying to keep the team in Arizona, one headed by former Sharks CEO Greg Jamison. The ever-present Jerry Reinsdorf heads the other. The Journal also reported that Jamison was interested in buying Jobing.com Arena and the adjacent Westgate City Center office and retail complex, an offer that would certainly be attractive to the City of Glendale.
Nevertheless, this is the week that the NHL could open up a second front in its plan to offload the financially burdensome Coyotes from the league's books, working both the local sale angle while starting to explore moving the club. "They'll do those two things simultaneously," McKenzie said on TSN 990, "and if at some point they get the Phoenix thing closed and it reaches the station, then -- boom -- it's done and that'll be that for now. If they don't, then they can keep going down that other track -- and that's where Quebec City and Seattle and Las Vegas and Kansas City will all be knocking on the door and making their presentations heard to try and make sure they have the landing spot. And the places that have an arena ready to go and committed or a temporary facility in the short term -- Seattle and Quebec City would probably be the two primary ones -- those will be the teams that try to work the hardest to make it happen."
Well, if having an NHL-ready building is all it takes, you have to add Kansas City to that group. But the league needs to have someone who is willing to own the team in that town, and has it ever? For that matter, while a new building has been proposed in Seattle, is anyone willing to own an NHL team in that town? We discussed Seattle's chances last month, but so far no one has come forward to say they'd be willing to own a team there. That doesn't mean a possible owner isn't out there, however. But anyone willing to own an NHL club in Seattle next season and for a few afterward will have to incur some serious losses while playing in the undersized Key Arena.
We do know that Péladeau is in the NHL ownership hunt and that Quebecor has the resources to stay afloat in three years worth of red ink while its team plays in the Pepsi Colisee. According to their 2011 statement, Quebecor earned $4.21 billion in revenue in 2011, a 5.2 percent increase from the previous year. “If you’re an organization with $4 billion in cash flow, buying an NHL franchise for $200 million is not that big a thing to imagine,” Glen Hodgson of the Conference Board of Canada, told Morgan Campbell of The Toronto Star earlier this month.
With his Videotron digital cable TV business booming, Péladeau would love to add the content of a second provincial NHL hockey club for his customers. It's a strategy that has worked so well for competitors Bell Canada/BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications with their Maple Leafs regional telecasts that they're becoming partners in owning the club.
It's way too soon to say how this will play out, and on TSN Monday evening, McKenzie sounded a bit more cautious than he did Monday morning (video and text), although the substance of his reporting remained the same. The successful move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg last May is still fresh in everyone's mind and, as McKenzie pointed out, the NHL can't wait until May to get the Coyotes situation resolved. Timing aside, moving a team back to an old NHL market is certainly something the league could easily duplicate in Quebec if, as Sean Gordon says, the opportunity reveals itself.
Right now, that's just a dream. But, until Sunday, so was a new Quebec arena.
And that song owes a lot to this one: