Last week's announcement by Quebec mayor Regis Lebeaume that a feasibility study will be undertaken about a proposed new $400 million, 18,000 seat arena was another step on the path to return the Nordiques to Quebec.
The mayor has recently held discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who gave his unofficial blessing to the project.
There have been many steps already taken along this route. First, there was a petition signed by 80,000 fans asking for the return of the team and a new arena built. Then the Provincial Government has pledged some money (though not the sum Lebeaume wants) to the project. Lebeaume has pledged some municipal funds. Next, a main investor, Quebecor, has vowed to be the main bidder for a returned franchise and has been seeking other corporate partners. Then the meeting with Bettman and the announcement.
It may be a political ploy to get Lebeaume re-elected, but no mayor would make an announcement like that unless something was cooking.
And to make it look like the arena pledge was not merely pandering to rich investors, the NHL, and Nordique hockey fans, the mayor said building it was necessary for Quebec to make a Winter Olympics bid, probably two decades from now.
All these steps are following a logical path to get NHL hockey back in Quebec.
The most ticklish issue will be getting government taxpayer money for the arena. Lebeaume wants the Federal and Provincial governments to contribute $175 million each to the project. That's wishful thinking especially at the federal level.
Though most Canadians want more NHL teams in Canada, there will be lots of opposition to using taxpayer money for sports facilities.
Besides the "moral" opposition who don't want any taxpayer money going to "bread and circuses", cities like Hamilton and Winnipeg would be saying "how about us?"
So it's in the interest of everyone concerned to get as much private financing as possible. Probably there have been unreported phone calls and negotiations between Quebecor, the mayor, the senior two governments, and other investors. A lot of behind-the-scenes activity is probably going on.
Similarly, there probably have been unreported negotiations and phone calls with Bettman. Quebec wants a smooth return entry to the NHL, not a Balsillie adventure.
As for Bettman, he would have to be an utter cad to encourage such spending and then not pledge a returned team.
If we are to take him at his word that the opposition to Balsillie was about trying to break the NHL's constitutional rules and not about opposition to putting new teams in Canada, then we should expect a returned Nordiques as payment for the new arena—with no opposition and legal tricks.
If all the red tape and investor negotiations could be cleared away by the end of the current NHL season, and an arena definitely set to be constructed, I wouldn't be surprised if the NHL sells the Phoenix Coyotes to Quebecor.
They have made it plain they don't want to operate a money loser indefinitely, and if they can't find an owner to keep the team there, selling the team to Quebecor would make the most sense, so long as it was legitimate within the NHL's transfer rules.
The only problem would be realigning a western team with the east. One way of doing it would be to transfer both Phoenix and Detroit to the east and then announce two western expansion teams.
A returned Nordiques would then play at the old arena until the new one was built. But Quebec must have that arena commitment before the NHL would make any move.
Other possible scenarios would be moving the New York Islanders who were disappointed with Kansas City's exhibition game attendance and need a new arena, one of the other money-losers like Atlanta, Florida, and Nashville, or an expansion team.
A new arena clearly puts Quebec into the driver's seat as far as expansion to Canada goes. The NHL would prefer to go back to a city were they had some success before economic conditions derailed the team, this time with a proper arena to get them through tough times. There are no territorial issues like Hamilton, and the new arena would be NHL-size unlike the arena in Winnipeg.
Usually I'm not a bettor, but if the new arena is pledged to be built and financed, "makeitseven" will be Quebec and I think that's a safe bet to make.
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