MONTREAL – With apologies to the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Thrashers, the Quebec Nordiques will be the team of the night in Long Island this Saturday.
Nordiques Nation, a 70,000-member booster club, is shipping 22 busloads of fans from the provincial capital to invade Nassau Coliseum, undoubtedly giving the Islanders’ home rink a decidedly French feel to it.
About 1,100 Quebecers decked out in Nordiques blue are expected in the stands in Uniondale, N.Y., for the Saturday evening tilt between the Thrashers and Islanders.
What appears an unlikely place for a Quebec Nordiques love-in is loaded with symbolism: the two teams playing have well documented financial and attendance problems.
“These are two teams that draw less than what a Nordiques franchise would draw without a doubt,” said Eric Grenier, whose sports travel company, Reve Sportif, has helped organize the trip.
New York City is also home to NHL headquarters and organizers of the trip want to make a clear statement with the league.
“The message we want to send is that ‘we love hockey’, not ‘we want to steal your team’,” said Grenier, who is also a member of Nordiques Nation.
“It’s a little wink towards the NHL, but we’re not getting involved in a political debate here. We’re just showing the NHL that we want a team.”
The Islanders say they’re aware of the Quebec contingent’s presence, which has been noted on a number of hockey blogs and even in the New York Times.
“The Islanders noticed they’d sold 1,100 more tickets than usual, so they know we’re coming,” Grenier said.
Fans have purchased about 500 seats behind each net. At the 15-minute mark of each period, the fans will cheer for 30 seconds to mark the 15-year anniversary of losing the Nordiques, Grenier said.
As for embarrassing the home team, the Islanders don’t have any issues with the Quebec visitors.
Grenier doesn’t see why they would.
“It can’t be any worse than when the (Montreal) Canadiens visit and there are 5,000 or 6,000 Habs fans in the arena,” Grenier said.
Nordiques Nation was formed earlier this year by a trio of radio personalities who want see the NHL back in Quebec City.
In early October, they organized a rally—dubbed the Blue March—where more than 50,000 people turned up on the historic Plains of Abraham calling for a return of the Nordiques.
The road trip comes as Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume is trying to get $180 million from the federal government to help build a brand new arena he hopes can lead to the return of the NHL to the city.
The Quebec government has already committed a similar amount to the rink project, which is expected to cost at least $400 million. But Ottawa hasn’t committed and might not be on board.
In Quebec, fans have been rallying around the arena issue, which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said is essential before the NHL would consider moving back.
Labeaume has set a deadline of Dec. 21 to raise the requisite money for the rink, which would also be used to help the city bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The Quebec Nordiques moved south and west in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche.