Who's Keeping The NHL Out Of Quebec City?

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Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: Getty, AP

Go to a New York Islanders game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, and you will be treated to a relatively quiet evening. One whole end of the arena sits empty because it overhangs one of the nets, making it impossible to see the action from that vantage point. The rest of the arena isn’t lacking for empty seats, either. The Islanders are joined at the bottom of the attendance rankings by the Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Carolina Hurricanes—all wanderers of the league’s expansion-era desert.

Season after season, it’s hard to watch the league’s least–cared about teams fail to draw crowds or drum up fan interest and not think about the hockey-mad city that the NHL, even in its time of overexpansion, has continued to leave out in the cold: Quebec City.


Quebec used to have an team, of course, and one that was beloved. The Nordiques played in the WHA and then the NHL from 1972–1995. The four-time division champs never went to a Cup final, but they attracted fans with their skilled lineup and the fact that they were the only major pro sports team in town, and the first since 1920. The Nordiques made the playoffs seven years in a row after a disappointing franchise start, and 1984’s “Good Friday Massacre” against the province rival Canadiens went down as one of the most infamous playoff brawls in history. They later sank to the bottom of the league, and eventually owner Marcel Aubut accepted COMSAT’s offer to buy the team in 1995, at which point they were relocated to Colorado and transformed into the Avalanche. Aubut’s explanations for selling the team included Canada’s onerous exchange rate and Quebec City’s monolingual population. Those weren’t enough to satisfy the local fans, who sent Aubut enough death threats that he needed a police detail to escort his family out of town.

Almost 25 years after the team left, Quebec City has the look and feel of a place that is primed for an NHL return. It has a pre-existing fanbase left behind by the Nordiques, a dormant but passionate rivalry with the Canadiens, and an NHL-ready arena just waiting for a team to move into. And yet while the NHL continues its eager expansion into American markets Quebec City seems no closer to getting a team.


Calls to bring an NHL team back to Quebec City have persisted throughout the years, with various fan groups occasionally catching the media’s attention. Vincent Cauchon, a sports radio host and co-founder of Nordiques Nation, once organized a trip to an Islanders home game where he and other Quebecois hockey fans donned Nordiques jerseys and agitated for the team’s return. That was way back in 2010, and Cauchon is still fighting all these years later.

In 2015, the idea of the NHL returning to Quebec City was supposed to have traversed the distance between wishful thinking and tangible idea when the Videotron Centre opened. The arena, constructed with $370 million in public funding, is the second-largest indoor event complex in Quebec and the seventh-largest in the country. “The project was the biggest public investment in Quebec City’s history,” says David O’Brien, who works in communications for the municipal government and was explicit about the motivations behind the arena’s construction. “The Videotron Centre has been designed to welcome an NHL team and the best music and entertainment international shows.” The arena was built for the purpose of wooing the NHL back to Quebec City, and boasts over 18,000 seats, which is plenty for any pro team. “I’ve covered events there, and it’s legitimately NHL-worthy,” says TSN reporter John Lu, who covers the Montreal Canadiens.


So far, the Videotron Centre hasn’t been anything close to Quebec City’s silver bullet. Since the arena opened in 2015, the NHL has expanded twice, into Las Vegas and Seattle, and there is no indication that Quebec City is any closer to getting an NHL team than it was before the arena existed. As it stands, the Videotron Centre is largely unused. It’s home to the Remparts of the QMJHL, and is a venue for large-scale rock concerts by outfits like Muse and Elton John.

The arena’s existence also hasn’t prevented NHL commissioner Gary Bettman from finding ways to explain why Quebec City continues to be ignored. When asked why Seattle was chosen for expansion ahead of Quebec City last year, Bettman blamed the then-unbalanced conferences, claiming that it would have been impossible to add another team in the east. A few months later, he cited vague “issues, logistical and otherwise,” when pressed on the matter by Don Cherry.


A sympathetic view towards Bettman’s and the NHL owners’ spurning of Quebec City can find some real obstacles standing in the way of the NHL’s return to the city. It’s still true that the city is still almost exclusively French speaking, posing a problem for the non-francophone players in the league (which is most of them). The relatively small size of the city and the proximity to Montreal, one of hockey’s biggest markets, is also an oft-cited concern. And, of course, the exchange rate is not to be forgotten: the $500 million expansion fee that Vegas paid for the Golden Knights would be over $670 million Canadian dollars.

But those are barriers that the league could easily move past if they really wanted to. The real reason Bettman keeps driving his league into American frontiers even as recent expansion teams continue to struggle is that he desires new markets above all else. Pre-existing hockey fans in Quebec City, many of whom may already be spending their time and money on the Canadiens or Leafs, don’t offer much in the way of expanding the game’s reach. New hockey cities mean new fans and TV deals and, hopefully, lots of new money. This is a bet that Bettman has made over and over again during his tenure (Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, the list goes on), and the success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights—a trip to the Stanley Cup in their first season and solid attendance records—can only have emboldened him.


One of the league’s most powerful franchises is also likely standing in the way. Lu believes that any attempt to bring hockey back to the city would find opposition in the Nordiques former hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. “There’s all sorts of fun and compelling reasons why the Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry would be fun to get back,” says Lu. “The fan base would relish the absolutely insane rivalry that was in Quebec in the 90s.” But he’s not sure that Canadiens owner Geoff Molson is so ready to share his corner of the Canadian market.

The Canadiens are wildly popular in Quebec, but are also Canada’s easternmost team. So the return of a Quebec City team risks drawing away not only former Nordiques fans, but all of the Atlantic provinces as well. Lu thinks that Molson, one of the biggest players in the NHL sandbox, may not be inclined to divide the pie. He points to the failed attempts at relocating a team to the greater Toronto area as an example.


Just over a decade ago, Canadian entrepreneur and BlackBerry creator Jim Balsillie toyed with the idea of moving an NHL team to somewhere near his native Waterloo, roughly a 90-minute drive west of Toronto. He planned to honor the league’s bylaw that no team be within 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, of another team’s corporate border. He attempted to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and, when that failed, reached a tentative agreement to buy the Nashville Predators. Within a week, he started to make plans to relocate the team to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton’s city council even approved of the plan. But, after an NHL board of governors meeting was called soon after, Bettman called relocation talks premature, and the deal ultimately fell through. The team was instead sold to a California businessman who had previously expressed interest in moving the team to Kansas City. The Predators ultimately stayed put, and are now Cup contenders who sell out their building every night.

The Maple Leafs are one of the most profitable organizations in the league, and the Toronto Star suggested that Leafs’ opposition to Balsillie’s plan was a big factor in its failure, referencing a 2006 letter Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment wrote to the NHL stating they had the right to veto Balsillie’s relocation attempt. The letter was referenced again in 2009 by the Globe and Mail, when the NHL blocked the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Balsillie, making him a three-time failed owned—he had planned to relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton. The NHL publicly denied it, but Balsillie speculated that the league did the Leafs’ bidding in blocking his ownership attempts.


“In all the discussion about Markham or Hamilton getting a team,” Lu says, “it never became clear whether or not there was an indemnity that the Leafs held.”

Any owner attempting to bring a team to Quebec City would end up facing a similar fight from the Canadiens. It also certainly doesn’t help that the man who has most often been identified as the potential owner of a new team in Quebec City, billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, doesn’t get along very well with Molson.


When the Molson family bought back the Montreal Canadiens (they owned just under 20 percent for a long time, but in 2009 bought back majority ownership from the Gillette family), Geoff Molson and his brothers aligned with companies like BCE, who actively wanted to block Péladeau from buying the team. Péladeau is the former leader of the Parti Quebecois, a political party in Quebec who’s main platform is to separate from the rest of Canada. Molson is a beer heir from an English-speaking family, and Péladeau once suggested that he wished the Canadiens owner fit more into the “spirit” of Quebec. Though he didn’t explicitly say it, it’s easy to infer that he meant the largely French-speaking spirit, suggesting that Molson is somehow less Quebecois. Last season, when the Habs failed to make the playoffs, Péladeau publicly blamed the team for the drop in ad revenues coming into his television channel, TVA Sports.

Péladeau’s company, Quebecor Media, tried to block Bell Canada’s construction of an arena in suburban Laval, Quebec in yet another run-in between the two Quebecois business magnates. Bell had partnered with Molson to buy the Canadiens a few years earlier, and Péladeau, conscious of the fact that his organization was building a competing amphitheater not far away, criticized the 10,000 seat Place Bell on Facebook just after it’s opening, citing Bell’s business failures and Quebecor’s successes. His remarks came after logistical issues plagued The Killers’ January 2018 concert at Place Bell.


Journalist Martin Patriquin, who covers a wide range of issues in the province of Quebec, says he’s still not sure that Quebec City would get a team even if Péladeau were replaced by a different owner. “There are structural issues—namely, the Habs domination of the Quebec market, and Montreal’s physical and linguistic proximity to Quebec City—that would dim the prospects of getting said team,” he says. “Molson has pretty massive sway on the NHL Board of Governors, and the Habs print money even during shitty seasons. Hard to imagine he’d mess with a good thing unless he was getting a piece of a new Quebec City team. But, suffice to say that Péladeau doesn’t make it any easier.”

Left bobbing in the wake of Gary Bettman’s endless American expansion drive and Péladeau and Molson’s feud is a city full of hockey fans who remain desperate for a team to call their own. Some of those fans, like Joseph Maguire, who helps administer a Facebook page for Nordiques fans, remain hopeful that Quebec City can get a team, even after being spurned twice in the last three years. “Maybe Gary Bettman would take a relocation personally, but he didn’t take it personally when Atlanta moved to Winnipeg,” says Maguire. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Ottawa Senators becoming the Quebec Nordiques.”


Other members of Maguire’s Facebook community, like Benoit Bergeron, aren’t as optimistic. “I’m from Quebec City. We loved our team. We knew that they were a strong team when they left,” he says. “It was a heartbreaking story. They are gone for a long time now. Most people don’t think they will come back. We saw in the recent expansion that the NHL has shown no respect for our city.”

The way Patriquin sees it, it’s Quebec City residents’ need to feel respected, to see their city on equal footing with Montreal, that has gotten them into the situation they are in now: yearning for the NHL’s return while footing the bill for a largely unused arena. “Quebec City has a massive inferiority complex when it come to Montreal, and it’s made people there crazy,” he says.


The full $370 million that was used to build the Videotron Centre came from public funds—half from the municipal government and half from the provincial government—and when the plans for its construction were revealed local politicians eagerly assured citizens that it would bring an NHL team back to the city. By 2016, the arena was already running a deficit, and the city has an agreement in which it refunds 50 percent of the arena’s deficits to Quebecor, which acquired the management rights for the arena in 2011. As of July 2018, the city had already reimbursed $5.7 million to Quebecor.

“It’s sad,” says Patriquin. “Because they’ve been taken advantage of.”

It’s been a quarter-century since the Nordiques left Quebec City, and in the years since the taste of hockey’s absence from the city has only gotten more bitter. First the city was abandoned by Marcel Aubut, then it was shunned by Gary Bettman, and now it must live with the consequences of being swindled into paying for an arena that has yet to serve its purpose. It’s one thing to not have a hockey team to call your own, it’s another to be paying for it.