The dream of the Nordiques comeback in Québec City looks more and more just like that: a dream. And a very expensive one.
A few weeks before the opening celebrations of the Centre Vidéotron, last year, Mayor Régis Labeaume was proud to announce the city had saved $30-million on construction costs, thanks to a tight management. The city will receive $3.9-million from the first year of operation of the building.
If you add the $33-million for the naming rights (double if an NHL team finally comes), this looks like a fine business deal for Québec City.
That is, if you discount the $200-million put in the project by the provincial government, plus the $170-million financed by the City itself.
Sure, the 67-year-old Colisée had to be replaced. Although they call it multipurpose, the real purpose behind building a 18,259-seat arena was not to welcome a junior hockey team and Rihanna or Def Leppard shows.
Quebecor, which owns Videotron, has already submitted a bid for the expansion process, which is set to conclude on June 22. From the start, the state-of-the-art amphitheatre was meant to send a strong message to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: Québec City is ready for a comeback in the NHL. And a serious owner has a plan.
The Nordiques departed in 1995 and the wound never healed. Adding to the humiliation of losing the franchise, the fans saw their team winning the Stanley Cup the following year – wearing Colorado Avalanche jerseys.
The economics of hockey changed since the Nordiques left. There is some revenue sharing in the NHL. The greater Québec City area is in a much better situation. With an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent, Mayor Labeaume said this week he plans to import jobless people.
Still, Québec is a small market with few large corporations. More importantly, the exchange-rate variations make a Québecor bid quite risky. At $500-million U.S. for a new franchise, you might pay as much as $700-million Canadian on a given day. Almost all your expenses are in U.S. dollars. And you have to compete in a market where the Montreal Canadiens are stronger then ever.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who has been dealing with the NHL on behalf of Québecor, said recently that the comeback was not for tomorrow. Many were quick to denounce the supposed anti-Canadian bias of Mr. Bettman.
Frustration is running high and Mr. Bettman makes for an excellent scapegoat. The common hatred towards him will one day be recognized as a major contribution to Canadian unity.
The truth is Québecor has good reasons to get the cold feet. The only sensible way to make some money with the new Nordiques is to generate enough profits with Québecor-owned media to compensate the losses of the hockey operations. With a payroll around $70-million (U.S.), it's quite a gamble. Mr. Mulroney and other company officials seem less willing to roll the dice.
With such a beautiful arena, it seemed a done deal last year. It makes it only more cruel for the fan. Maybe later? Maybe a U.S. team could move north for less?
The dream never dies, but it's pretty much broken and it comes with a bill.