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Is Quebec City a viable NHL market?

TSN/Globe and Mail

7/9/2010 10:05:16 AM

Marian Stastny can still make the shots – on the links, that is. At 57, Stastny runs a hotel and golf resort just upriver from Quebec City. Three decades ago, the name Stastny meant a completely different sport around these parts.

"Beautiful moments," says Stastny with a smile. "And beautiful relationships between the hockey players and the supporters."

In the early 1980s, Marian, Peter and Anton Stastny formed a dynamic brother trio with the Quebec Nordiques. And each spring, their playoff battles featured epic showdowns against Montreal in the annual Battle of Quebec.

"It was really a fight for every square centimetre of the ice," said Stastny. "And we wanted to show that we could play, that we are able to win as well. So we did our best and it was really something special for everyone."

Those were heady days, when the Nordiques dared to challenge Montreal for the hearts of hockey-mad Quebecers.

Then reality kicked in.

Rising player salaries and a weak Canadian dollar, combined with being the smallest market in the NHL, were too much for the Nordiques to overcome. And like the Winnipeg Jets, they played in an aging building without the prospect of a new home. In 1995, the team was sold and moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche.

"For me it was my whole life," said former Nordiques president and CEO Marcel Aubut. "But it was like pulling my heart out of my body."

Quebec is one of North America's truly beautiful cities. It's European in look and feel. It's rich in history, culture and a love of hockey.

To lure the NHL back, the city is aiming for a new publicly-funded $40 million dollar arena, supported by the provincial government and championed by Mayor Regis Labeaume (See this website for more on the effort to get a new arena, and a team in Quebec).

"The big challenge for me is the building - to get the building decision as soon as possible," he told TSN. "I don't want to miss the opportunity to get a team. I said I would commit $50 million and I asked both levels of government to pay the rest. And I told them, let's make a deal."

And there's no questioning what such a building would mean to the city – a crown jewel of sport that would be recognized throughout the province.

"We want it to be one of the most important buildings in the city of Quebec," said François Moreau, whose company ABCP Architecture is in charge of the project. "A symbol for the city. So what we have designed is to have something that reflects the attractiveness of the city of Quebec. It's going to be the tallest structure being built out of wood in North America."

The financing of a new arena could be hooked to a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. If it's approved, the city would then use it to lure an NHL team from one of league's struggling American markets. Under that scenario, Quebec City might have teams lined up at its door.

"I've been straight forward with Commissioner Bettman," said Labeaume. "I told him this is my strategy and this is the journey. I'm trying to go there by doing that and that. And I'm going to keep him posted. He knows exactly where I'm going."

And where a building is concerned, the NHL appears to be on the same page.

"I've spoken to the mayor, I've spoken to the Premier," said Bettman. "They seem to be hopeful to confident that there will be a new arena perhaps in conjunction with an Olympic bid."

But the non-profit organization behind the arena is already making headway on selling corporate suites for a building and a team that do not yet exist.

"We started in March of 2009 and we've sold 70 - almost finished," said Moreau. "And a waiting list of 10 companies, so it's fantastic - without a team, only with the expectation of having a team someday."

Quebec City used to be a government town, but today it's more about private business.

"Right now, Quebec City's level of income per capita has now surpassed Montreal," said Mario Lefebvre, Director of the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada. "And Montreal has a team that does very well with people who have enough money to watch games."

Ownership is the final piece of the puzzle, which is what makes the interest of media giant Quebecor so critical. And CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau has already met with the NHL.

"The fact that he is in the broadcast business, you have more than a hockey team - you can build an entertainment business," explained Labeaume. "Like (now former Canadiens owner) George Gillett did in Montreal."

Aubut, who was a young and charismatic NHL executive in his own right, agrees.

"Pierre will be a dream owner," he said. "He's young, a good operator and has the synergy with everything he's got - television, newspapers, cable, that would be a perfect fit. That's the dream. The momentum is there. I'm saying as soon as the building is confirmed, everything is possible. And it could be fast."

And there seems to be little objection from Bettman, who saw the Nordiques move out just two years after taking the job as league commissioner.

"I believe a team can be well supported in that market," he said.

And to a former Nordique who's seen it all in Quebec as Marian Stastny has, it all makes sense.

"Here in Quebec City, you have a real love for the game," he said. "They are real supporters, people that understand the hockey. They support the hockey, they follow the hockey, so it could only be a positive thing for the NHL."

Professor Norm O'Reilly's scorecard for Quebec City

Market Attractiveness

Economy: B-

Demographics: C

Market Size: C

Corporate presence: C+

Overall Score for Market Attractiveness: C+

Franchise Viability

Arena and Location: A+

Competition and Barriers to Entry: A+

Potential Owner (Quebecor, CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau): A

Final Grade: B+

What Norm O'Reilly says: "A team in Quebec City can work. There are a number of challenges to overcome. If you make the assumption that a public stadium is built, that's to the nines, that makes it easier. Then you'd need an ownership group willing to put money in and lose a bit, take a risk in the long term. You'd need a savvy management team that can fit the team into a market that is still attached to the Canadiens."

Note: Norm O'Reilly's evaluations are based on his own background and knowledge of the subject, transcripts of interviews done by TSN/Globe and Mail for this series and data collected from various sources including Statistics Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, Environics Analytics, IMI and Harris-Decima.

Watch for more tonight on SPORTSCENTRE, and all this week at tsn.ca/whynotcanada and in the Globe and Mail.

Coming Saturday: Conclusion?