As the Quebec Nordiques struggled financially in the early 1990s, then-Premier Jacques Parizeau asked team president Marcel Aubut for best- and worst-case scenarios.
"I remember for the worst, we showed him something that [was so dire]we were laughing," Aubut said. "We said that would never happen."
But the situation in Quebec City deteriorated beyond the worst case, Aubut said, insisting still today that the sale to Denver-based ownership for $75-million (U.S.) was the only recourse.
"It was just like pulling my heart out of my body," Aubut said. "We had to say we made the right decision. Waiting would have resolved nothing."
At the time, Aubut asked the province and city to build a new Colisée at a cost of $50-million, and for construction of a casino to cover the team's estimated annual losses of $25-million. The requests denied, the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche and Aubut made a reported $15-million personally on the sale, along with a guaranteed job as consultant for the team. T-shirts with his picture and the caption "Wanted: Dead Or Alive" sold briskly.
Fifteen years later, Aubut and others in Quebec City are trying to bring the NHL back to the city, with Quebecor Inc. said to be interested in ownership. They point to the NHL's salary cap and the consistent strength of the Canadian dollar as positive differences between now and then. And the province's capital offers comparative political stability, the country's lowest unemployment rate, a growing private-business sector, and a ferocious appetite for hockey.
"The only thing I care about is getting a team back here and seeing Quebec back in the professional hockey league," Quebec City Mayor Régis Lebeaume said. "Something is missing in town. It's the spirit about our national sport."
Lebeaume is a proponent of a publicly funded, $400-million arena that would seat 18,000 and be core to the city's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He is pledging $50-million of local taxpayer money and asking the provincial and federal governments to pick up the rest.
"I am a fan. I love the game," Lebeaume said. "I think our Premier [Jean Charest]loves the game as well. You have to see the big picture. … The big challenge for me is to get the building decision as soon as possible. I don't want to miss the opportunity to get a team."
The arena would be North America's largest wooden structure - built to reflect the city's culture, with sailing flags and a moat that would serve as an outdoor skating platform rink in winter.
"We want it to be one of the most important buildings in the city of Quebec, a symbol for the city," said François Moreau, chief executive officer of ABCP Architecture, designers of the building and a partner in the non-profit organization backing it. "The population is really behind this project."
And so apparently is the NHL.
"I've spoken to the Mayor, I've spoken to the Premier," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "They seem to be hopeful to confident that there will be a new arena. … There are a lot of hockey fans there. With the right ownership group, with a new arena … I believe a team can be well-supported in that market."
Media giant Quebecor was among the final bidders for the Montreal Canadiens last spring. President and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau reportedly met with Bettman recently to proclaim the merits of Quebec City, and Bettman has spoken public about the league's desire to return to previous markets.
"Pierre will be the dream owner," Aubut said. "He's young, a good operator and the synergy with everything he's got - television, newspapers, cable - would be a perfect fit. We could [also]find an owner who would want to move [to Quebec City] We have to be open to all options."
Winnipeg is the other abandoned market. Quebec City also has a relatively small metropolitan population, 754,000, with fewer corporate head offices and large businesses than Winnipeg. But with a bigger building than Winnipeg's MTS Centre (15,015), a franchise in Quebec City could conceivably charge lower prices for tickets.
In March of 2009, the non-profit organization behind the project starting accepting down payments on suites and seats in the proposed new building. The 70 suites are already sold out, with a waiting list behind, and there have been 2,300 deposits on season tickets. As of this week, the company has taken in $10.8-million.
"It's fantastic - without a team, only the expectation of having a team some day," Moreau said.
However, the NHL has no plans of expanding any time soon, which raises the delicate issue of the city proclaiming its interest even as the league resolutely avoids relocating franchises.
"We just want to be a solution for the NHL," Lebeaume said. "I've been straightforward with commissioner Bettman. He knows exactly where I'm going."
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