Names were dropped, many warm words were spoken – we’ll come back to those – but the most interesting aspect about this scene was where it unfolded.
Sure, there were glitzy visuals arranged by the TVA Sports boffins and the usual pompous pronouncements of ushering in a new era in broadcasting.
Also this: The National Hockey League’s newest media partner managed to dragoon the commissioner of the league, the owner of Quebec’s lone NHL entry, a junior hockey commissioner, a bevy of broadcast industry titans and the Stanley Cup for a launch party in a sports-bar-in-a-box near a six-lane expressway in the Montreal suburbs.
In other words, to TVA territory: The network and Quebecor, the company that owns it, draw a healthy portion of their gaudy audience numbers in suburban and semi-rural areas.
And up there on the stage, a few feet from hockey’s sainted chalice, stood former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, now chairman of Quebecor and the lobbyist-in-chief for that company’s publicly stated goal of obtaining an NHL franchise.
He spun tales about his hockey-playing boyhood (“I was a pretty good player back then – a right winger. That won’t surprise you”) and good friend George H.W. Bush (to whom he recently gave a Montreal Canadiens warm-up jacket), dialling up his welcome for commissioner Gary Bettman, whom he hailed as “bold, daring and visionary.”
“Your leadership has dramatically transformed the NHL for the better … we welcome you today, sir, with respect and admiration,” Mulroney said.
Bettman was similarly gushing, saying “everybody would vote for you again if they had the chance.”
Important, powerful people are typically nice to each other in public, and it often means little.
But this equation involves hundreds of millions of dollars. Although TVA’s exact contribution to the 12-year, $5.2-billion broadcasting deal with Rogers and Quebecor isn’t known, it’s hefty.
There’s no evidence to suggest Bettman is anything less than forthright when he says things like “we’re not looking to relocate any franchises and we’re not ready to expand.”
Or any motive to question his sincerity when he’s asked if Quebecor is the right outfit to bring NHL hockey back to Quebec City – it holds the naming rights and management contract to the under-construction NHL-ready arena – and replies it hasn’t been considered “with any degree of seriousness.”
But there’s an undercurrent, and it is drawing the NHL and Quebecor ever closer.
It can’t be an accident that the NHL’s other major media partners – NBC/Comcast, Bell, Rogers – have ownership stakes in one or more teams.
How long before Quebecor gets a key to the club?
Bettman’s not willing to consider that question for the moment, but he was perfectly willing to effusively compliment TVA Sports, which can still be characterized as fledgling, at their programming launch – “this was a spectacular event … it’s emblematic of everything we’ve come to expect of this relationship: first class professional quality.”
He also said this about Mulroney when a reporter asked whether having a former head of government in the fold helps Quebec City’s cause: “Brian elevates anything he’s involved with. I think Quebecor is fortunate to have him as its chairman, and I’m fortunate to have him as a friend.”
So do those words weigh more heavily in the balance than: “You will know that we’re in an expansion process when two things happen. One, we start delving in and doing serious homework, and two, we announce that we’re in an expansion process”?
Or this: “Our teams have never been healthier, nobody’s moving”?
Bettman seemed in a mostly buoyant mood, lavishing praise on Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and reminiscing about the first time he handed the Stanley Cup to a winning captain in 1993 at the Forum – “I didn’t get booed, so it’s with fondness I recall that.”
In a news conference afterward, he addressed some housekeeping matters – an appointment is imminent for a new NHL disciplinarian, there is nothing new to report on the World Cup, the hope is a new contract with referees can be struck “quickly, quietly and peacefully” – but was mostly bombarded by questions on relocation and expansion.
Bettman rubbished recent media reports that expansion to Las Vegas was a done deal (“a complete fabrication,” he said), and knocked back the suggestion that the Florida Panthers, who are in a lease squabble with Broward County, could find themselves relocated (“don’t be focusing on the Panthers, they’re not going anywhere”).
Skeptics will point to similarly categorical statements regarding the Atlanta Thrashers and Phoenix Coyotes in the not-so-distant past.
That’s a fair criticism, but it’s also abundantly clear the NHL isn’t in any rush to add teams or move pieces around the chessboard.
What is less crystalline is how long that will continue to be the case as the NHL, Quebecor and Rogers become further entwined in an ever-richer commercial partnership.