At best, Quebec City will be a landing place for the Atlanta Thrashers 2.0. At worst, it is destined to become French Canada’s version of Hamilton, a place that will for years be used as a stalking horse, but will never get an NHL team.
To be sure, the shine is off Quebec City as an NHL destination. In fact, it’s a little like a failed first-round prospect in that way. For a while it’s heralded and there are great hopes, but for a host of reasons those hopes don’t get realized and that player ends up a career minor leaguer. For a hockey player, that often happens when other players who were less heralded catch up to him and pass him on the depth chart. And that’s what is happening to Quebec, once a crown jewel for expansion when the Canadian dollar was robust and the league seemed out of options for expanding. Since then, Vegas emerged, Seattle finally got its act together and Houston produced a basketball owner willing to look at housing an NHL team.
If there were ever any doubt about this, things were made crystal clear by Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs in his end-of-season address on Wednesday. “Quebec is challenged,” Jacobs said. “OK, I’m going to put it nicely. They’re challenged. Look at the income base and the population base and there probably isn’t a smaller market, so they’re going to really have to distinguish themselves in some other way, I would think.”
Actually, when it comes to income base and population base there actually is a smaller market than Quebec City and it’s the home of the only Canadian team still left in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s by a sliver on both counts, but to say that Winnipeg is the smallest market in the NHL is not accurate. And it’s important to note a couple of things. First, the Centre Videotron in Quebec City has almost 3,000 more seats than the MTS Centre in Winnipeg. Second, even a small Canadian market means potentially more eyeballs and entertainment dollars than a larger city in the United States.
But perception is just as important as reality here. And when Jacobs says that Quebec City has to “distinguish themselves” he pretty much means it has to be ready to take a distressed team at a moment’s notice, the same way Winnipeg did. Given its druthers, the league would not have preferred to go back to Winnipeg, but when the Thrashers needed to leave Atlanta on the double seven summers ago, Winnipeg had a readymade building and the infrastructure in place to begin playing the next season.
With his statements, Jacobs is making it clear that expansion to Quebec City is out of the question, regardless of the hope that commissioner Gary Bettman continues to hold out for the city. It’s also important to note that Quebec City has never been promised anything by the NHL. Not once. Telling markets they need to have an NHL building in place before even being considered for expansion is far, far different than telling a city that if they build it, the NHL will come. Quebec City, or better yet the taxpayers of that province, knew that very well when they gave up more than $400 million of their money to build a state-of-the-art arena.
You may wonder why the words of Jacobs mean so much, but the reality is they mean a lot more than Bettman’s. And the reason for that is Bettman works for Jacobs, not the other way around. Jacobs is not only the chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, he also chairs the all-powerful executive committee, which is the key decision-maker on matters such as expansion. With the death of Ed Snider and Peter Karmanos selling the Carolina Hurricanes, Jacobs remains a vital part of the league’s old guard and a key Bettman ally. Essentially, what Jacobs says goes when it comes to matters of this nature.
There’s also the cost factor for Quebec City, which would be steep. It’s believed that when the league does expand to Seattle, the price tag for an instant contender will be in the $650 million (U.S.) range, which would make the price tag for Quebec City somewhere around $830 million in Canadian funds.
Things are not dead for Quebec City. These things tend to be fluid. But right now they don’t look promising at all. Any team looking for a better deal will almost certainly play the Quebec City card and use it the way teams did with Hamilton for all those years. The only problem is that years pass and buildings become obsolete, even the shiny brand-new ones. So for the time being, the closest Quebec City will get to the NHL is Patrick Roy, the Hall of Famer who will once again be behind the bench for the QMJHL’s Remparts next season.