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Short of cash and a new arena, few in Quebec City still cling to NHL dream

QUEBEC - Former Quebec Nordiques winger Marian Stastny is an optimistic man, but even by his rosy assessment the NHL would nearly have to collapse before the game returns to his adopted home.

Sitting in his grand baroque-style inn next to the golf course he built on a tract of farmland just southwest of Quebec City - both expensive, risky ventures that testify to his positive outlook - Stastny says the game belongs in Quebec's capital.

All the town needs is a proper professional rink and a billionaire backer - two key ingredients that aren't even on the horizon in the city of 700,000.

"Personally, I'm an eternal optimist," says Stastny, once the right winger on the Nordiques' famous trio of Stastny brothers.

Unlike brothers Peter and Anton, Marian Stastny has remained in Quebec, building a business and raising a family long after his hockey-playing days were over.

"I think a team will come here at some point," says Stastny. "But it will take some kind of crisis in the NHL for the team to return here."

That crisis, Stastny says, would entail several U.S. teams going broke simultaneously, an event that might force the NHL to retreat to hockey strongholds north of the border.

It would be a complete reversal of the financial troubles that drove teams from Quebec City and Winnipeg in the 1990s.

The Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 while the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix one year later.

Neither team ever won a Stanley Cup in Canada, but the Nordiques won more playoff series and maintained one of the most intense rivalries in hockey history with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Avalanche did lift the cup in 1996, leaving many Nordiques fans bitter that the franchise had become so successful so soon after leaving the province.

Dormant NHL dreams sporadically spring to life in Winnipeg and Quebec City, as well as in Hamilton and other parts of southern Ontario.

In the past few years, financial troubles in Pittsburgh and Nashville brought brief spurts of hope to Canadian cities itching for a team.

In recent months, billionaire businessman Jim Balsillie tried - and failed - to wrestle the Nashville Predators into southern Ontario.

Manitoba Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen lost his bid for provincial premiership in May after a desperate promise to bring back the Jets.

Many Manitoba pundits considered the pandering pledge the low point of the election campaign.

At least Winnipeg has a shiny new 15,000-seat arena, though it's a little small by NHL standards. The city also has a deep vein of nostalgia, making Jets T-shirts and ball caps the most prominent sellers at many Winnipeg gift shops.

Quebec City, a government town with a badly out-of-date arena, few corporate headquarters and no billionaires looking for expensive distractions, has even further to go, Stastny concedes.

A poll published in the fall showed barely half of Quebec City residents wanted the return of an NHL team.

Quebec City's mayor - who occupies a political post usually reserved for a town's chief cheerleader - is especially blunt about his city's NHL prospects.

"It's pointless, people get excited for no reason," said Regis Labeaume, who was elected Dec. 2 to replace the flamboyant Andree Boucher, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

"The problem in Quebec City isn't the building, a building we can organize. It's the $200 million to buy a franchise, it's television rights, it's selling corporate boxes.

"If a building was the problem, instead of these things, Winnipeg would already have a team."

Stastny sees other clouds on the immediate hockey horizon.

Quebec City will co-host the 2008 World Hockey Championships with Halifax this spring. The Quebec capital nearly lost the tournament when various levels of government balked at providing loan guarantees.

Local enthusiasm for the tournament, which will feature match-ups like an early tilt between Denmark and the Czech Republic, is not quite reaching a fever pitch.

"I'm a bit worried that the world championships will discourage people," Stastny said. "It's not a tradition in North America, it's almost secondary. In Europe, it's very important and people support it.

"Here, who knows."

Little-known Quebec City businessman Mark Charest maintains a website where he touts a return of the Nordiques. He emerged to spell out grand visions for $600-million sports installations, only to recede back into obscurity.

He couldn't be reached for an interview.

"I've seen it before, it's just another businessman with empty pockets trying to be important," Stastny said. "It takes someone with money, someone financially strong leading the parade.

"In the conditions of today, it takes $200 million to get a team," said Stastny, who still gets misty-eyed talking about the sport that brought him to Quebec from Slovakia, then part of Czechoslovakia, to play with his brothers in 1981.

"It would have been much easier to keep the team when it cost $14 million."


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