McKenzie: Former NHL owners weigh in on Markham arena

Bob McKenzie

1/29/2013 11:42:35 AM

The future of the Markham, Ont., arena project may be determined in a vote of Markham City Council Tuesday night and many of the big guns in the professional sports community are weighing in.

Former Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett has been in conversation with some of the local Markham politicians and it's pretty clear he's urging caution in any commitment to build an arena without knowing what, if any, options exist for an NHL team.

In a radio interview on Monday, Gillett said: "You do run the risk of alienating (NHL) people because you are presumptuous enough to do something (build an arena) before you've been invited into the club."

When former Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut heard that, he quickly offered up a 180 degree different view. It's the Battle of Quebec, albeit with former Hab and Nordique owners, all over again.

"I heard what George Gillett said and I couldn't disagree more," said Aubut, who's trying to spearhead a re-birth of the NHL Nordiques in Quebec City. "Totally. If you ever hope to get an NHL franchise, you must have the building. It's why the Jets are back in Winnipeg. They built a new arena in Winnipeg for a minor-league team and if they hadn't done that, the NHL would not have gone back there. One hundred per cent. That's why we are building an arena in Quebec City. If we don't, we have no chance to get a team."

But there's also no guarantee that if a city builds an arena it will end up with an NHL franchise, and that has been the mantra of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"Correct," Aubut said. "There are zero guarantees that if you build the arena you will get an NHL franchise but if you don't build the arena, there is zero chance of getting one."

By all accounts, Tuesday night's council meeting in Markham will be a raucous affair that could ultimately determine whether an NHL-calibre arena will be built in Markham.