There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that legally obliges the NHL to grant an expansion franchise to Quebec City. In the 80-page expansion bid kit, the league repeatedly points out there are absolutely no guarantees, that the bid is a $2 million expression of interest only. And NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made all of that crystal clear when he announced the process in late June. “The fact that we’re going through the process doesn’t mean we are going to expand,” Bettman said at the time. “All it means is that we’re going to stop listening to expressions of interest and take a good, hard look at what they actually mean and represent.”
All that said, the NHL has no choice but to grant a franchise to the good people of Quebec City. Because even though the court of law is on the NHL’s side, the court of public opinion would crucify the NHL and Bettman if it did anything else at this point.
To frame this whole thing as anything but a disaster for the NHL would not do it justice. The league overvalued its own product and made the mistake of thinking there would be people who would do anything in order to get in. In effect, the NHL invited 16 people to its party and only two showed up. And now it says it will deal “exclusively” with Bill Foley in Las Vegas and Quebecor (which owns the subsidiary that owns The Hockey News) in Quebec City. Which is only fair.
But if you think the NHL isn’t upset about how all this unfolded, consider a news release the league sent out Tuesday to update the situation. “Our purpose, in initiating the expansion process in the manner we did, was not only to explore the possibility of admitting new members to the NHL but also, at the outset, to set realistic guideposts to distinguish between bona fide expressions of interest (i.e., those which have at least substantial ownership capabilities and an arena or the realistic possibility of an arena) from those indications of potential interest which were, at best, merely hopes or aspirations,” the release said. “Apparently, only Mr. Foley and Quebecor have the confidence in their ability to secure an arena and suitable ownership capability to move forward with this process.”
It’s not often you see the NHL being this snarky, mean-spirited and petty about something. And it’s a direct shot across the bow of venture capitalist Graeme Roustan in Toronto and Victor Coleman in Seattle. Say what you want about these guys, but they’ve both worked for years at trying to secure arena deals. They’ve spent their own time and money and invested a significant amount of emotional capital into their efforts. And because they couldn’t close an arena deal within two weeks, their efforts are labeled, “at best, merely hopes or aspirations.” Talk about a public shaming. The league doesn’t talk like this unless it is very, very angry.
So, in the end, the NHL got applications from the two markets whom everyone knew desperately wanted into the NHL club, and none from markets it desperately wants itself. And I’m not one to tell my employer what to do, but if I’m Quebecor the first thing I do today is send a bouquet of roses to Roustan and Coleman. Because their unwillingness to give in to the NHL’s ransom demands has basically painted the league into a corner.
Think about what Quebec City has done here. The NHL basically told prospective NHL owners that they need not even bother to apply for a team unless it had an arena in place. So with absolutely no guarantee of getting a team, the province of Quebec and Quebec City put up $400 million in taxpayer money to build an 18,000-seat arena that meets all the NHL’s specifications. The NHL then demanded a $10 million deposit, with $2 million of it non-refundable, again with no guarantees. It found a well-heeled corporate owner willing to do whatever the NHL asks, pay whatever amount it demands, to attain the dream of being back in the NHL.
So what happens now if the interests in Seattle get themselves aligned and come up with the means to put together an downtown arena deal? Does the NHL allow them back into the game? Does it do an end around and manipulate the process to give its preferred destination a team? Does it grant only one expansion franchise to Las Vegas and ignore Quebec City?
If any of those things happens, the optics of all of it will look terrible. So now instead of having applications from its two desired western cities, Las Vegas and Seattle – thereby leaving Quebec City and/or Toronto as a landing place for relocation – the league will now have to take one eastern team and one western team, which will not solve the geographic imbalance.
In short, if the league does not accept Quebec City into the club, this whole expansion process will be viewed as a sham. So, welcome to the club guys. Now let’s get The Battle of Quebec going again.