It's built, and they're coming.
For a few days, anyway, Quebec City's gleaming new hockey arena is the hottest ticket in town. More than 170,000 people signed up for Videotron Centre tours that began Thursday. And the 18,500-seat ice palace is sold out for next week's inaugural junior hockey game.
Without a National Hockey League team to keep fans in the seats, however, the arena, which resembles the bottom half of a giant igloo, will be an albatross for the municipal and provincial taxpayers who've footed nearly all of the $370-million construction bill. And even if Quebec gets its NHL franchise, it's no guarantee taxpayers would be in the black. Just ask the long-suffering residents of Glendale, Ariz., who remain stuck with subsidizing a money-losing team.
Quebecor Inc. could find out as early as Friday whether its formal bid to revive the Quebec Nordiques has survived initial scrutiny by league bosses, as the third phase of its application process comes to a close. Even if Quebecor's business plan passes muster with league honchos, it could be months before NHL owners vote on its application. And it's not clear it will get that far.
What is clear is that the proposal to return professional hockey to Quebec City is getting more expensive by the day. The Canadian dollar has slid more than 25 per cent since Quebecor began assembling its bid, adding at least $165-million to the minimum $500-million (U.S.) price tag for an expansion team. A 75-cent loonie means a similar inflationary impact on player salaries.
That may explain why Quebecor controlling shareholder Pierre Karl Péladeau, who also happens to lead the official opposition Parti Québécois, all but invited the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec to become an investor in his company's hypothetical hockey franchise last week. The provincial pension fund manager already owns a quarter of Quebecor Media.
Mr. Péladeau, who as of last week had still not placed his Quebecor shares in a blind trust, suggested that investment funds such as the Caisse and the Quebec Federation of Labour's Solidarity Fund would be welcome partners in a team. "If the Caisse is solicited and it considers it a good deal, it will up to them as managers to decide. It's not me who will make their decision," he said.
The PQ Leader/media mogul made his remarks at a caucus retreat in Rimouski, providing fodder for Liberals eager to underscore the untenability of his current situation. "He's commenting about the fact that the Caisse de dépôt could invest in his business, his own business. That is what you call a conflict of interest," Liberal MNA Jean-Marc Fournier charged.
While the Caisse remained characteristically mum, a partnership with Quebecor would not be its first incursion into pro hockey. It financed American businessman George Gillett's 2001 purchase of the Montreal Canadiens. Mr. Gillett sold the team and its arena to the Molson family for $575-million (U.S.) in 2009. Forbes magazine pegged the franchise's value at $1-billion in 2014.
The Solidarity Fund told reporters it would consider investing in a potential Quebecor team. The fund was a minority shareholder in the Nordiques between 1988 and the team's 1995 departure for Colorado. It currently owns stakes in the Canadiens and the Montreal Impact pro soccer team.
Still, an investment by the Solidarity Fund in a Quebecor-controlled team would be bittersweet, considering Mr. Péladeau's previous antagonism toward organized labour. A two-year-long labour conflict at Quebecor's Journal de Montréal ended in 2011 with just 62 of 253 locked-out employees returning to work. This week, Quebecor locked out workers at its Mirabel printing plant after contract negotiations stalled. The workers belong to the Teamsters, a QFL affiliate.
Another name circulating as a potential minority partner in a Quebec City NHL franchise is that of Belgian-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Molson Coors rival Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. Labatt has signed a deal with Quebecor to become the Videotron Centre's official beer supplier.
In May, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault warned that Mr. Péladeau's leadership of the sovereignty movement was an impediment to Quebecor's bid, since federalist NHL owners have a veto over the league's expansion. But Quebecor is counting on chairman Brian Mulroney's diplomacy to win over NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and team owners.
Publicly, at least, Canadiens CEO Geoff Molson has been supportive of pro hockey in Quebec City. After all, the revival of the Montreal-Quebec rivalry could only be good for the Canadiens' bottom line.
And it might just be the only thing that spares taxpayers in Quebec City from getting their very own Big Owe.