Why the NHL didn’t accept Quebec City’s expansion bid

They have the fans, they have the arena, they have the history, they have the branding, but what Quebec City doesn’t have is the NHL’s interest.

It’s hard to believe that’s its been 22 years since the Quebec Nordiques, arguably at the peak of their franchise’s on-ice product, moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. Although significant time has passed, the wound is still very much raw, with the added bad taste left with the fanbase that the Avalanche would instantly become a powerhouse in the NHL over the next seven years, winning two Stanley Cups. If fate were less cruel it would have been Quebec’s celebration.

The sale of the team for $75 million USD (about $103 million CAD) by majority owner Marcel Aubut on May 24th, 1995 to an American conglomerate came after months of fruitless talks between Mr. Aubut and Premier Jacques Parizeau to help the financially crumbling organization, including developing a plan to fund a new arena to replace the aging Colisée. There was talk of creating a lottery to help with the $100 million bill for a new arena, but ultimately nothing came of it.

Mr. Aubut, in the face of financial losses due to the Canadian economy in recession and player salaries skyrocketing, was forced to make the unpopular and heartbreaking decision.

A few false starts, but then success

Several teams tried to fill the void left behind by the Nordiques in Quebec City. First came the Rafales of the International Hockey League, who operated from 1996 to 1998, then the Montreal Canadiens’ farm team, the Citadelles, from 1999 to 2002. Both teams failed to attract many fans, however, as the public was not ready to support another professional hockey team in a meaningful way, especially in the outdated Colisée.

The city did eventually find success with the Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when they returned in 1997 after a 12-year absence. Starting with a meagre 1,873 average attendance for their home games in that first season, the organization grew the team to an astounding average attendance of 13,835 for the 2015-16 season; the highest average attendance for any team outside of the NHL in North America. More remarkably, this average attendance was higher than that of several NHL team as well, notably the Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes, and New York Islanders.

Supporting this massive attendance was a state-of-the-art new arena that was built with only one thing in mind: the return of the NHL. The Centre Vidéotron opened in 2015, 20 years after the departure of the Nordiques. The $400 million dollar arena was funded entirely by the municipal and provincial governments, with a capacity of 18,259 people, making it the seventh largest indoor arena in Canada, and would rank 18th among current NHL arenas.

If junior hockey can draw that many people in Quebec, imagine what an NHL team could draw. With that in mind, Quebecor, the group leading the way for an expansion franchise for Quebec City, officially submitted their $500 million NHL expansion application in July of 2015, raising hopes that the return of the Nordiques was near. The NHL gleefully accepted the application, but from the start it always felt like they never took it seriously.

Thanks, but no thanks

Unfortunately, the NHL never seemed to have any serious desire to bring a team to the Quebec capital. The NHL has, for a very long time, been focusing on American expansion and building the game in new non-traditional markets. That’s why they are so steadfast in keeping a team in Arizona, why there are two team in Florida, and why there are teams in Nashville, Carolina, and Columbus.

Currently the majority of these organizations are losing money, and are being propped up by the richer clubs in the league through the revenue-sharing program.

It is thanks to this revenue sharing that the league can continue playing the long game trying to expand to new hockey markets like the Southern US, and even the UK, continental Europe, and now glancing towards China for future opportunities.

Given the solid financial foundation of the NHL as a whole they can take these risks to expand the brand. As always organic growth takes time, and it’s hard to argue that overall the NHL has not been successful with this plan.

Auston Matthews became the first Phoenix-raised NHLer, which obviously is a major win for the league in terms of locally-developed talent in these non-traditional markets, and should help to boost the interest in the state. Despite the financial hardships, the game is growing in these areas, and the NHL is slowly but surely successfully embedding the game.

Where does the league want to move to?

Obviously the entire latest round of expansion was designed around giving Las Vegas an NHL franchise. Nobody will argue that.

In addition, there is very little doubt that Seattle was a shoo-in to receive an NHL franchise should they have, to even the slightest degree whatsoever, managed to get their act together in order to apply for the expansion franchise. At one point there were reportedly up to three different groups in the coffee bean capital trying to sort out an arena deal and drum up some public support for the application. But it all fell apart and, to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s great dismay and frustration, no group from Seattle applied on time.

And that’s what is probably the most frustrating. Quebec City offered a model submission which included a new arena, season ticket sales, and government support, but all along the NHL was leaning towards the disjointed mess in Washington state, and opted to go with a lopsided 31-team alignment rather than accept Quebec’s bid.

Other locations that are rumoured to be high on the league’s list are Kansas City and Houston. Those are two other non-traditional markets that have previously hosted professional hockey teams: the Kansas City Scouts from 1974 to 1976 and the WHA’s Houston Aeros from 1972 to 1979.

Quebec City, for now, is not on the radar.

Where is the sense in this?

Think of it this way: If you were to put an NHL team back in Quebec, how many new fans are you creating? Essentially none. The province of Quebec is now saturated with hockey fans, comprised of several generations of fans who grew up with the Montreal Canadiens and more who have reluctantly switched allegiance after the Nordiques’ departure left them no choice. Adding a team in Quebec City would not grow the fanbase, but simply reassign it. Despite an initially financially strong franchise, a dip in the Canadian dollar would lead to another financially precarious team, similar to the Ottawa Senators.

This is the same reason why you won’t see a new team in Markham or Hamilton, either. Nothing new created. A team in Hamilton would in fact be destructive to the Buffalo Sabres, who count on Canadian fans crossing the border to see games.

Nobody is arguing that there would be revenue generated by ticket sales, merchandising, and broadcast rights that would rival the most lucrative teams, but the problem in the long run would be saturation of the market, which would actually cause an inverse reaction in the devaluation of the franchises in the vicinity. So even though these Canadian sites would be strong revenue generators initially, it would be a myopic solution to the league’s larger plans.

The people of Quebec and their representatives did everything right, and offered the NHL a model expansion franchise ready to start operations at a moment’s notice. Never say never when it comes to the return of the Nordiques to Quebec City, so all hope shouldn’t be lost, but there is little desire on the part of the league at the moment with their focus purely set elsewhere.

Listen to Andrew weekly on TSN 690 Radio Sundays at 8:05am on Habs Breakfast, part of Weekend Game Plan.

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