Passion for hockey glows

In October 2010, More than 50,000 people attended the Marche Bleue at the Plains of Abraham in...

In October 2010, More than 50,000 people attended the Marche Bleue at the Plains of Abraham in support of the return of the NHL to Quebec City. (Benoit Gariepy/QMI Agency/Files)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:18 AM ET

QUEBEC CITY - Huge flakes of snow are swirling in what is now the sixth or seventh hour of a storm that has the tenacity of Dale Hunter and outside Le Colisee, the rising tide of white is muffling sounds as thousands of fans make their way into a game between the Quebec Remparts and the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL.

The people stop inside the doors of the old building, which was once home to the likes of Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur in their junior days and Hunter, the Stastnys and Peter Forsberg for 16 years in the NHL. They shake or brush the snow from their hats and shoulders with a laugh, thankful for the respite from the storm and the warm anticipation of a hockey game.

There will be more than 10,000 fans at this game on a miserable night in La Vielle Capitale, the type of winter's day and night where drifts of snow, driven by a sharp-edged wind, swirled off the ramparts from which the junior club draws its name and then across the Plains of Abraham.

As Quebecois singer/songwriter Gilles Vigneault sang in the 1960s, "mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver (my country isn't a country, it's winter)."

This is winter.

As cold and bitter as this couple of days has been here, through it all, like a nice fire in a stone hearth, the passion for hockey here glows.

There's a sense of anticipation here, not just for this game between teenagers, but for the return again of NHL stars, for the Battle of Quebec and, in the minds of many, Quebec's return to its rightful place in the best hockey league in the world.

* * *

Thousands of miles to the southwest, the ongoing fate of the Phoenix Coyotes is now accompanied by the ticking of a doomsday clock. If an owner can't be found to keep the team in suburban Glendale in the next 90 days or so, it is the belief of many inside and outside the corridors of the NHL that, like the Atlanta Thrashers before them, the Coyotes will be heading for Canada.

At the NHL's all-star game in Ottawa, following a meeting of the board of governors, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated there are three potential owners kicking the tires in Glendale and he was not prepared to start discussing "Plan B."

"What else do you expect him to say?" wondered one source, who works for an investment firm with ties to the professional sports world. "He's not going to say anything about the Coyotes while the season is on because he doesn't want to further damage the franchise or hurt the team's chances with the playoffs approaching. Don't forget, he's the owner of the Coyotes.

"As somebody else said, and I agree with this, Glendale is an abyss for the NHL. Gary Bettman's job is to create value for his owners. How do you do that? It's like selling your house. If somebody believes there are other buyers, that somebody else is coming in for a viewing as soon as you leave, you create your own market."

The rumoured price for the Coyotes franchise is $170 million, perhaps an ambitious target when a team such as the St. Louis Blues, its American Hockey League affiliate and the lease for the rink in which the Blues play -- in an established hockey market -- went for about $135 million, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Of course, the value of the Coyotes franchise is tied to where it will wind up playing.

Bettman has promised his owners the league won't be on the hook for any losses when the NHL finally takes a shower -- and hopefully not a bath -- and cleans itself up after leaving Glendale.

One source believes the patience among some owners with the league's involvement in Gendale has run out.

"When you've got 20 teams losing money, another three breaking even and just six that are making money, what do you think they want to do? Keep writing cheques for another team that's losing money? Most of them have got their own problems.

"I can't see a business plan that works in Glendale unless the city is willing to underwrite the club's losses -- and the appetitive for that is diminishing after giving the NHL $50 million over the last two years -- or you find a billionaire who doesn't care about losing $30 million a year. Given the way the economy is here (in the U.S.), there aren't too many of those guys left."

As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in Ottawa about trying to find an owner would who keep the Coyotes in Glendale: "at some point, if you're not successful, you have to turn the page and move on. And I think there's a growing sense that we're getting there."

* * *

Over at J'ai Ma Place (I Have My Place) in Quebec City, things have been busy. They're hoping they get busier.

J'ai Ma Place is a consortium of local interests in Quebec City that has contracted with Quebecor -- the media giant which, among other things, owns the new all-sports network TVA Sports in Quebec and publishes the Le Journal de Montreal, Le Journal de Quebec and all the Sun Media newspapers -- to sell luxury suites and seats in the proposed new rink in Quebec City. Quebecor has a deal with the city and province to manage the new rink and put its name on the $400 million building.

J'ai Ma Place has 8,000 of the approximately 20,000 seats to sell -- the buyer owns the seat for all events in the building -- and have sold half of them. They are allowed to sell 74 of the 86 corporate suites in the building and have sold all 74 with a deposit of $25,000 each.

"People are afraid there aren't enough businesses in Quebec," said J'ai Ma Place chairman of the board Mario Bedard, "but (the suites) are the first thing we sold out."

The other suites are being reserved for team sponsors.

Because the building is being funded by public money, a large chunk of the seats have to be set aside and made available to the public on a per-game basis (which might make it impossible to have the kind of sell-out-the-building-for-the-year frenzy there was in Winnipeg).

"The general feeling here is very good," Bedard said. "The people here are very emotional and every time there is any kind of declaration surrounding the topic people are getting excited."

Quebec's excitable mayor, Regis Lebeaume, has said there will be a shovel in the ground this summer and the building is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.

Pierre Karl Peladeau, the president and CEO of Quebecor, is poised to become the owner of the franchise. Owning an NHL franchise like the Nordiques would create a nice synergy with his new all-sports network and put TVA Sports in a position to challenge the Montreal Canadiens and RDS, an arm of TSN and Bell Media, for the hearts, minds and wallets of Quebeckers.

A spokesman for Quebecor declined comment on the company's potential NHL involvement. "We want to maintain a low profile," he said. "We don't discuss our business plans."

As far as the market goes, what's changed in Quebec City from 1995 when they couldn't hang onto the Nordiques and lost them to Colorado?

The Canadian dollar for one thing. It's helped all the Canadian teams and has helped drive the league's revenues to record heights.

"This is also the city with the second-lowest unemployment in Canada. The economy is good here," Bedard said. "We did not feel the recession of 2008 here. It's like we're in a bubble here. The economy now is much better than it was."

Comparisons with Winnipeg will be inevitable. What the fans have done for the Jets there was remarkable.

Canadian cities by population
According to the latest census, here's where Quebec fits into the picture by metropolitan area.
Toronto5.58 million
Montreal3.82 million
Vancouver2.31 million
Ottawa1.23 million
Calgary1.21 million
Edmonton1.15 million
Quebec765,706
Winnipeg730,018

But in terms of market size, Quebec has the upper hand. The two cities are comparable as far as metropolitan population goes, but drive for an hour outside of the Manitoba capital and you're counting acres, not people.

There are another million people living within a hour's drive of Quebec City.

Supporters of Quebec's NHL bid will also point out Winnipeg might have the Manitoba market to itself, but the just released Canadian census had the population of Manitoba at 1.2 million. The new Nordiques will be in a potential provincial market of 7.9 million, many -- like in the case of the Jets -- already with an allegiance to the Nords from the last go-round.

More than 50,000 people turned out on the Plains of Abraham in October of 2010 for the Marche Bleue, a rally to show support for a return of the Nordiques to the NHL.

I ran into a bunch of former Nordiques that day.

"Quebec has changed since the Nordiques left," said Andre Savard, the former Nordique who went on to scout, coach and manage in the NHL (he's currently a pro scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins). He's also a businessman in Quebec.

"I think it's in a much better position than it was in 1995. The city has grown. You can see it from the traffic. Obviously, getting the NHL back will be a challenge, but attendance won't be a problem.

"I think it's the young people who didn't get to see the Nordiques who want it the most. They're pushing for it."

* * *

If we assume a shovel will go into the ground and the new rink in Quebec City will become a reality, it won't be until 2015.

If an owner can't be found in the next 90 days or so to take over the team and keep it in Glendale, could the old Colisee be given a facelift and serve as a temporary home for three years?

Of course it could.

The precedent is there: The Calgary Flames played in the Corral until the new rink was ready and the Senators played in the Ottawa Civic Centre while the Palladium was being built. Perhaps more significantly, the Carolina Hurricanes played miles away in Greensboro when they relocated from Hartford until the rink in Raleigh was ready.

Le Colisee already holds as many for hockey as the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, though Le Colisee lacks corporate suites (it apparently has 15 small ones for the Remparts).

When asked about that possibility, Bettman said: "I don't know the answer to that. The last time I was in Le Colisee was for the world championships and I didn't go on a site tour. I sat in the stands. So I don't know the answer to the question because it's not anything we've looked at. To suggest anything else gets the excitement (going)... and I'm not looking to raise expectations because that's unfair.

"We've told anybody in any market who has asked that doesn't have a team, don't do anything planning on having a team because we're not making anybody any promises of anything."

There apparently is a plan in place for a $10 million renovation of Le Colisee which would include a refrigeration plant, air conditioning and expanded, NHL-calibre dressing rooms.

That's all well and good, but if Quebec is going to get an NHL team, it must get that new building started.

Dirt needs to be flying.

"I think the Colisee is an option, but only if construction has started on the new building," said one governor when asked under what conditions he would approve a move of a franchise to Quebec.

"There has to be that commitment."

The movers and shakers in Quebec insist that is going to happen.

The new rink in Quebec will be designed along that maritime theme, what look like a ship's masts supporting windows that swell outward like a ship's hull.

The feeling here is Quebec's NHL ship will come in, again.

It's not a matter of if, but when.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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