That Was Then
In 1995, Canada had a national population of just over 29 million people. To put it in perspective, that would place them in between California and Texas for total population.
Why is this significant? Because 1995 was the last time Canada was at full strength with eight, count 'em eight, NHL teams. In case you forgot what that looked like, I've provided a link of the final standings here.
In a league that had only 26 teams at the time, 30 percent hailed from north of the border.
Think about that for a moment.
That's roughly the equivalent of Texas alone having eight such franchises today. This ain't college football and having 10 division-one schools just doesn't mean the same thing.
Northeast division: Ottawa Senators, Quebec Nordiques, Montreal Canadiens
Central: Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs
Pacific: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks
It seemed no matter where you looked, the league was dominated by Canadian franchises, and for good reason.
That season also included a lockout-shortened 48 game schedule and saw the Quebec Nordiques dominate to the tune of a 30-13-5 record to capture the No. 1 overall seed in the Prince of Whales Conference. The Nordiques, however, lost in six games in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Rangers.
That surprising loss was the last series ever played in Quebec.
That offseason they relocated to Denver, Colorado, immediately winning the Stanley Cup. The championship can be attributed to years of picking first overall and stockpiling youth and talent with smart trades, most notably the Eric Lindros deal in 1992.
After mostly-online grumbling mixed with nostalgic whimpers of the past and wishful thinking amongst heartbroken fans, for the first time since 1995 it appears that the NHL is serious about returning to Le Vieille Capitale.
This Is Now
Last Sunday, Oct. 11, news broke that the current mayor of Quebec City, Regis Labeaume met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut discussing the potential of a franchise returning in the near future.
In case you haven't been keeping up with it, allow me to summarize the details:
- The meeting was driven by the staggering U.S. economy, particularly in the U.S. Southern franchises, when it comes to NHL hockey clubs.
- Any city wanting to host a team, Winnipeg and Hamilton are the others named, have to first submit a plan which includes a new hockey arena to be built and a separate plan on exactly how that arena would be paid.
- Any new hockey arena must include at least 18,000 capacity seats.
- There is no clear favorite, as a fair and formal process would need to be conducted, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has already made it known that "We do have an interest in returning teams to Canadian cities that have hosted and supported NHL teams historically."
Mayor Labeaume followed up the media hype by introducing plans last Friday Oct. 16, for a brand-new $400 million arena that would also be used in a joint effort to entice the 2022 or 2026 Olympic games to Quebec.
In doing so, he also took time to address concerns from political opponents who claimed such a nostalgic move was done to gain votes for his up-coming re-election bid.
"I don't need that to win the election. I would say more I'm taking a risk now," Labeaume, who is leading the polls and was already expected to cruise to victory, responded to CBC News Oct. 12.
Canadian Media Speculation Runs Wild
Newspaper outlets have suggested that with the U.S. sliding economy, now might be the perfect time for traditional markets to uproot those in newer, less traditional markets such as those in the Southeast.
In fact, with as many as 10 NHL franchises in serious financial trouble, some believe it's Canada's game to lose, provided they can come up with a plan to rescue and relocate them North.
Still others continue noting that this time, with a stronger Canadian dollar, now might be the perfect storm for nostalgic cities to put their money where their mouth (and hearts) are and get their old teams back to their rightful homes.
In Quebec's case, do you really think that the provincial government of Quebec and federal government of Canada, each of whom would be required to pay $175 million towards the $400 million proposed arena, with the city kicking in the final $50 million would actually balk at hockey's very real return?
I don't think so.
They know it would be political suicide in a country and province that claims to miss their Nords affectionately so.
We have to remember that hockey is a niche sport in the United States, where, if mixed within the right crowd, can instantly morph into a coded second language with terms of cross-checking, blue-lines, and two-line passes thrown around faster than a Bob Probert haymaker, that would leave any un-interested or onlooking observer puzzled.
In Quebec, on the other hand, like in the vast majority of Canada, it's simply a way of life, the National sport, a past-time. In a province where nationalism is still rampant, never underestimate the symbolism and pride a Nordiques return could provide.
Mayor Labeaume is smart to jointly intertwine an Olympic bid. It not only plays perfectly into the hands of the Canadian government, which increases the likelihood of contributing their $175 million share, but also puts the pressure on otherwise skeptical politicians to rally behind their country or risk backlash.
While not all politicians may be on board for hockey to return, knowing it also could hinge on a much more prestigious Olympic bid that far more Canadians could benefit and enjoy, they might be more inclined to approve the necessary funding. It also simply may be too tempting to pass up, despite their doubts or reservations on the hefty price tag.
Hartford More of a Wish Than the Rest
While nothing has been said as concrete as Quebec or even Winnipeg to a lesser extent, I personally remain hopeful than Hartford will opportunistically get in on the NHL's economic desperation and lure a team back to the Constitution State.
Like their Canadian competitors, Hartford should have their pick of the best of the rest with so many teams ironically in trouble.
Too Good To Be True?
Even with nothing to lose, election in hand, do you honestly think Mayor Labeaume would waste his time and effort, meanwhile getting his constituents hopes up if he didn't already know its all but a formality? My guess is this was the case and more details will be released when appropriate.
Much like Winnipeg has supposedly eyed the Atlanta Thrashers as their team to move north, Quebec has done the same. Probably with the Phoenix Coyotes who face the most immediate danger and risk of extinction, no pun intended.
With the league already running the team, all that would be needed was a venue to move them to, which is exactly what Quebec is trying to provide.
They've complied with all the the NHL's regulations and apparently the NHL is quite impressed with their arena plans, which could open as soon as 2012.
I believe the NHL will continue to run the Coyotes, who can't continue to draw 6,000 person crowds, until the arena in Quebec is finished. Then it's off to Canada, leaving the remaining Yotes scrambling for the latest Rosetta Stone software in an attempt to learn French on the fly.
How nice will that be? A day I never thought I'd see come. Evidenced by a sellout in less than an hour for a September exhibition game last month, Quebecors still embrace their hockey and await its return.
Phoenix, nothing against you, but I'd be worried. For its no accident that an exhibition game, a test game if you will, just happened to be played this year in a traditional market. That pretty sellout ought to end any doubts of fan indifference.
This, coupled with reports of Kansas City, a supposed favorite to land an NHL team, not able to draw 10,000, it's not surprising that Quebec has apparently moved to the top of the list in preferred cities on which to relocate.
It was only a matter of time. Once Labeaume set the wheels in motion, the rest will fall into place. And I, as a hockey traditionalist, wouldn't want it any other way.
You see, the NHL is done messing around.
No more southern experiments. No more guessing, hoping, and wishing. Its crunch time, and time is money. Even Gary Bettman isn't going to let a $400 million arena rot when he knows he can sell it out.
I dream of a Nordiques return that includes reminiscent battles with their provincial rival, the Montreal Canadiens, for bragging rights. I dream of Le French-Canadien press oozing like schoolchildren over hockey's rightful return home.
Most of all, what I dream is a revamped roster, similar to Montreal's. One loaded with 12 Canadians and four Quebecors. A place for players like Daniel Briere and Patrice Bergeron to call home once again and with any luck, to be given the opportunity to retire in front of their home crowd.
I don't care how it happens, I just want it to happen.
The NHL has had fourteen years to correct a mistake. It starts in Quebec and it ends in Hartford, CT with Winnipeg mixed in between. NHL, I've already done the realigning for you:
2012-13 NHL Realignment
Pacific Division: San Jose, Anaheim, Vancouver Canucks (return to original division), LA Kings, and Dallas Stars
Northwest: Winnipeg Jets (from Atlanta), Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild
Central: Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs (reunites them with some old rivals, division), Chicago Blackhawks
Southeast : Nashville Predators (takes place of Atlanta Thrashers), Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightening, Buffalo Sabers (hey if the Tampa Bay Bucs can be in the old NFC North, the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC East, or the Atlanta Braves in the NL West than this can work for now)
Northeast : Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Nordiques (from Phoenix), Hartford Whalers (from Florida Panthers)
Atlantic: NY Rangers, NY Islanders (for now but on endangered list), Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils
This leaves only Tampa, Dallas, Nashville, and Carolina as non-traditional teams and Carolina and Tampa aren't going anywhere. Dallas I have my doubts on moving anyway, and Nashville I can live with as the only "real" problem.
No more hockey in Arizona and Georgia and half the teams in Florida. In a perfect world, the Coyotes would move back to Winnipeg, tail between their legs. It would be a hilarious move of irony and harsh dose of reality for an NHL that ought to have known better than to step on the face of tradition.
I think we can all live with that.