QUEBEC CITY - On an overcast mid-January afternoon, there is the feeling of an approaching storm here.
Heavy clouds loom over this old and beautiful city and the strengthening wind is whipping plumes of snow off the grey stone of the ramparts near St. John's Gate.
On a walk from there toward the Plains of Abraham, there is the rustle of the wind and another, unmistakable sound, a hollow, echoing sound that is recognizable to anybody of a certain age who grew up in hockey country.
It's the sound of a puck banging off the boards of an outdoor rink.
Just off Rue d'Auteuil, in the Parc de l'Esplanade, there's a nice outdoor rink. Here in downtown, the ice is hard and fast and a group of a half-dozen guys are playing a pickup game.
They float around the rink, their breath visible in the cold air.
The rink is just steps away from the Plains of Abraham where, in the fall of 2010, more than 50,000 people turned out to show their support for the return of the NHL to this city.
I was there for that rally, heard the excitement of the people, talked to a bunch of former Quebec Nordiques, saw the way people wanted the NHL and the Nordiques to return to fill a hole in the heart of a community.
You saw it in Winnipeg, saw the way they took in the new Jets and what a success that has been.
Standing on the edge of the Plains of Abraham, now covered in snow and not people, listening to a puck bang off the boards of a great outdoor rink, it's hard not to think, "If it can happen in Winnipeg, why not here?"
The big question is the new rink, but everybody here is confident the financing is in place, any last legal wrangling will be resolved and a shovel will go in the ground in the summer with a completion date of 2015.
The wind picks up again.
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To add to the case for Quebec, the Conference Board of Canada came out with a report late in the week saying Quebec City and Hamilton meet the minimum conditions to support an NHL franchise.
"Let's also be clear that Winnipeg, Hamilton and Quebec City have less of a margin for error than teams in larger Canadian or U.S. cities. These franchises can be successful as long as they have dedicated owners who are invested for the long term, manage their business and markets carefully, and the Canadian dollar remains a strong currency," said Mario Lefebvre, the Conference Board's director, Centre for Municipal Studies.
It is interesting to note the Conference Board's report pointed to the importance of "Market Wealth," and said Winnipeg, which snapped up all of the Jets' season tickets in a matter of hours once it was announced the Atlanta Thrashers were relocating there, ranked 14th in Canada.
Adding to Quebec's case it can cut it as an NHL city is the fact it is ranked 10th by the Conference Board.
In fact, according to the Conference Board, Quebec City (and Winnipeg) ranked ahead of both Montreal and Vancouver in per capita income.
J'ai Ma Place, the organization charged with selling 8,000 seats in the proposed new building in Quebec City, has revealed it has already sold all 74 of the corporate suites it has available. The Conference Board report said that as of 2009, Quebec was home to 17 of Canada's 800 largest corporations putting it in the ballpark of Winnipeg (30), Edmonton (26) and Ottawa (19).
"The Conference Board concludes that possessing relatively few head offices does not necessarily disqualify Quebec City or Hamilton as potential markets -- especially if corporate giants from nearby cities (such as Montreal in the case of Quebec City, or Toronto in the case of Hamilton) become involved in the franchise," said the report.
While there has been a lot of talk about a new rink in the Greater Toronto Area, the Conference Board doesn't think a second NHL franchise in any Canadian city would be sustainable at this point.
"The prospect of additional teams in Canada's largest cities has been circulated among sports business commentators, but the Conference Board does not view a second franchise as feasible in any of Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto," said the report. "Risk of market saturation for both fans and corporate supporters, combined with territorial issues with existing teams, would be difficult hurdles for a second team in these cities to overcome. It should also be noted that any proposed Hamilton franchise would have to address the territorial claims of nearby NHL teams in Toronto and Buffalo."
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The candidacy of Seattle to rival Quebec as a potential landing spot for the Phoenix Coyotes -- if the league can't find an owner to keep them in Glendale in the next 90 days or so -- has gathered momentum with the news there are talks for a new arena in Seattle.
Some in the NHL are touting Seattle as the favourite to land either the Coyotes, some other relocated franchise or, potentially down the road, an expansion franchise.
The Seattle Times came out with a well-timed report (from the NHL's standpoint) detailing how Christopher Hansen, a hedge-fund manager and Seattle native, is in talks with officials in the mayor's office on a new building which would make it possible to bring the NBA back to Seattle (the SuperSonics left in 2008).
They're waiting to see what happens to the Sacramento Kings, who need a new building and have set a March 1 deadline for a plan for a new arena from the city (it's not clear what happens to the Seattle arena project if the Kings stay in Sacramento).
There's a feeling among some people inside and outside the NHL the news about Seattle and talk of its potential as a landing spot for the Coyotes is convenient for the league which could find itself trying to sell the Coyotes shortly and trying to maximize their profit on the sale. What better way to boost the value of the Coyotes than to at least create the illusion of more than one option?
"Gary Bettman is doing a good job. The news -- and I'm putting air quotes around 'news,' -- there is a mystery third bidder for the Coyotes interested in keeping the team in Glendale, the talk Seattle has moved to the top of the list for relocation, it's all good for the NHL and for making sure they got the most they can for the Coyotes if they have to sell them, which I think is going to be the case," said one source who is in the sports franchise evaluation and market analysis business.
"The Seattle project is NBA driven. If they make it happen, the NHL is going to be the fourth banana in that market behind the NFL, the MLB and the NBA. They have soccer there, too. I just think given what we know today, Quebec is closer to being ready and you have the added benefit of being the only game in town and in a place where hockey matters.
"There's no question Seattle gives the NHL more juice if they can make it work, but that's a big if."
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Peter Stastny, the Hall of Famer who starred in the 1980s for the Nordiques, was on the Plains of Abraham for the Marche Bleue, that rally of Nordiques fans.
He wore his passion on his face that day.
You could hear it in his voice.
He had travelled from Brussels, where he was representing Slovakia in the European parliament, because it was that important for him to be there.
"It's a big symbol of the love and passion the people have here for the game, in this city, in Canada. It was important to me to be here. I couldn't say no. I had to find a way to be here.
"I know and love hockey and I want it to grow. Having Quebec back in the league would be a big positive for the NHL and the sport."
Quebec back in the NHL?
It was a no-brainer for Stastny.
"My 10 years here was like 10 years in paradise," he said. "I came from a totalitarian regime that I hated with a passion. I knew I had no future there. I came here as a young man who knew hockey and knew freedom and I loved the hockey and the freedom. Coming here, I was almost shocked how accepted I was. It turned out to be more than I was looking for."
It might turn out to be just what the NHL needs.