Columnist image
Gary Lawless

TSN Senior Correspondent


When buying and locating a burger franchise, one would be best to look for a corner where they eat meat. Popping up a McDonald’s in a vegan neighbourhood is an uphill battle.

Quebec City eats hockey meat. Las Vegas? This will be the first time they’ve ever seen it on the menu. They’ll come by and sample, but after that it’s anyone’s guess. Quebec City isn’t a guess. It’s a lock.

They’ll buy tickets for a winner or a loser. They’re hockey fans. They averaged more than 14,000 fans a game for 13 of the Nordiques’ 16 NHL seasons.

There won’t be a honeymoon period. They’ve been divorced. They know what that’s like and they’re still willing to get married again. Their ardor won’t fade.

Quebec City is the most natural choice for NHL expansion. Ticket revenue is still the No. 1 economic driver in the NHL. More than any other expansion candidate, Quebec City will thrive in this area.

They have an owner, they have a building and they are a suitable market. If the Canadian dollar was trading at 85 cents this wouldn’t be a discussion, Quebec City would be getting a team.

Forgive me for not accepting the wisdom of the NHL on expansion matters. The NHL’s record on all things expansion is not spotless. The fact that NHL says it or decides it doesn’t make it right. Las Vegas might work. It might also be the Titanic just waiting to be boarded.

Commissioner Gary Bettman knows this and it’s why he’s going to ask every other team in the NHL to bend over to help make Vegas an immediate contender.

Bettman’s had to dance a delicate step here. Expansion is palatable to franchises that need the cash infusion. It’s not to more viable organizations. Ever the consensus builder, Bettman has inflated the fee — $500 million (U.S.) — to a point where more teams are willing to look at it. But in order to justify the whopping buy in, Bettman has to give value in the form of real, live NHL players.

Vegas has a much better chance of surviving if the team can win and win fast. If it turns out to be the next Atlanta and scuffles for a decade, it’s craps in the desert.

Quebec City, however, is not a gamble as a market. It may not ever soar, but it also isn’t going to sink. It’s a hockey market. The sport is indigenous to the area. It’s a natural fit.

The return of the NHL to Winnipeg has been a wonderful thing for both the city and the league. A sold-out building and a passionate fan base is never a bad thing.

Bettman played a key role in relocating the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and has been thrilled with the results.

"What stands out isn't something that is an epiphany," he said. "The fact is this has always been a market that we knew was passionate about hockey. The team, when they left, was a victim of circumstances. The government agreement was over, there was no prospect of a new building, there was nobody that wanted to own a team here,” said Bettman last April when in Winnipeg for a Jets playoff game.

“That's why I opened by saying that without Mark Chipman, David Thomson, this building and the great fans, who wanted a team all those years and have been waiting 19 years for this playoff game, that's what brought it back together."

Winnipeg is never going to top the league in revenue. But it’s a solid market with consistent and guaranteed revenues. Quebec City would be very similar. It has a willing owner, a state-of-the-art building and a legitimate hockey fan base. Those are all the elements Bettman consistently points to for successful market.

Las Vegas can argue the first two, but what about the third? Ticket deposits are one thing. Backyard rinks, piles of wooden sticks in basements and jerseys passed down from one generation to the next are another.

U.S. owners might argue putting Quebec City up on the marquee isn’t an easy sell. Fair enough. Someone should remind them Columbus and Carolina don’t exactly get the heart racing. For the seven existing Canadian teams, Quebec City would be another hot night on the schedule.

The instant rivalry between Montreal and Quebec City would be among the NHL’s hottest. Think Pittsburgh-Philly or Anaheim-Los Angeles in today’s game or Calgary-Edmonton from an earlier era. And it wouldn’t fade.

Quebec City has some flaws as an expansion candidate. The $500 million (U.S.) franchise fee equates to $667 million Canadian. That’s a big pill to swallow for a small market. The business model wouldn’t leave much left on the table for ownership. But that’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s problem. He knows the math and still wants in.

The corporate support in Quebec City is limited but captive. NHL hockey would become the only show in town.

If the argument from owners is they don’t want to admit another revenue share team, Las Vegas isn’t a safer bet. Maybe in the early years. But try and sell a loser in Sin City? Think Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Not pretty.

Sometimes we overthink things. The writing is on the wall: Vegas would appear to be getting an NHL franchise and Quebec City will remain on the bench. Perhaps forever. Or maybe Bettman is holding them as a card to use down the road in a relocation play.

Who knows? What we do know is the NHL is willing to roll the dice when it could be playing with a stacked deck.