Quebec Nordiques Expansion: Stuck In 1995

Twenty years has changed some things. Quebec City is now pulling away from Hamilton and Winnipeg in population and wealth, firmly established as the 7th largest city in Canada. In fact it is in approximately the same situation Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary were back in 1980, the rising cities, the coming cities of Canada. Soon Quebec City will have more than one million people.

It has built a first-class NHL-ready arena, the Videotron. It has more dealings directly now with “English Canada” and with the United States. It is slowly encouraging more tourism from outside the province of Quebec, adjusting to the presence of more “foreigners” within its borders.

But some things have not changed and they are some of the main reasons why Quebec City still does not have the Quebec Nordiques back, despite NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s and the league Board’s open welcome and desire to have the city back within the league fold.

(For more relative articles on this subject, see my previous article about Bettman putting franchises into Quebec and Hamilton for the NHL Centennial Celebrations in 2017 and my article “The Longer The Nordiques Crisis Drags On, The Worse Canada Looks” plus many others on this blog exploring why Quebec still does not have the Nordiques back.)

To refresh everybody’s memory, Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, in 2010, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and offered them terms for readmission: good fan base (no problem in all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable owner (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). Winnipeg is back, Quebec has tried to follow suit, and Hartford has yet to be heard from.

But while the fan base and arena problems are solved, the ownership problem is not. The bidder for a Quebec City franchise was media giant Quebecor, headed by Pierre Karl Peladeau, a supporter of the separatist provincial party, Parti Quebecois. Before becoming a supporter of bringing back the Nordiques to Quebec City, Quebecor tried to purchase the Montreal Canadiens in competition with Molson Breweries and when he lost, Peladeau made public, racist remarks about the suitability of a Quebec anglophone, Geoff Molson owning the Canadiens which were offensive not only to Molson but probably to the majority of the NHL Board, both American and Canadian English speaking owners. Peladeau has never retracted his remarks or made any attempt to apologize to Molson. Thus when Quebecor put in its bid to bring back the Nordiques, Bettman and the NHL automatically turned it down. They cannot afford to have a public racist on their board.

In public, the NHL pretends that they turned down Quebec because of the low Canadian dollar and because the league conferences are unbalanced. Nothing could be more untrue. They want the Montreal-Quebec City NHL rivalry back and they want that $500 million expansion fee.

So behind the scenes, Gary Bettman is trying to find a suitable owner for a Quebec City team. It is strongly suspected by this author that two events, the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins by Mario Lemieux and the resignation from the Colorado Avalanche of Patrick Roy are part of Bettman’s plan to find suitable French Canadian owners for a returned Nordiques.

And that brings us back to 1995, the last year the Nordiques existed. Quebec lost its team because of the low Canadian dollar, high player salaries, and because they had refused to build a suitable NHL arena like the Videotron to get them through an economic crisis. And no suitable, rich potential owner stepped forward to save the day. Nobody believed in the team.

Now in 2016 the same ugly factors that caused the Nordiques to depart are still present except the arena problem. When Peladeau attempted to become the new Nordiques owner, his racism – a factor already well known by Bettman and the NHL Board – doomed his bid before a single shovel started Videotron construction. And just as in 1995, no suitable rival bidder appeared. Had a suitable, non-racist, French Canadian potential owner appeared, Bettman would not have had to work behind the scenes and he and the NHL Board would have welcomed him with open arms. Where are these people, rich, non-racist, French Canadians who believe in a Quebec Nordiques franchise? Quebec City would already be celebrating and looking forward to 2017 if such a person appeared.

Two other options must be mentioned too. Another solution to the Nordiques problem would be for an anglophone Quebecer, – Geoff Molson say – to step forward and put in a bid. But what would Peladeau, and his racist, separatist colleagues say? What would a returned Parti Quebecois provincial government do? Would French Canadian Quebec Nordiques fans accept anglophone Quebecer ownership? Any sympathetic, anglophone Quebecers are going to be intimidated by thoughts of racist, separatist, French Canadians, acting through a Parti Quebecois government, passing laws imposing penalties upon them, and even stripping them of team ownership. So anglophone and other “foreign” Quebecers are quite content to remain silent and back Molson and the Montreal Canadiens.

And that precludes one other obvious solution: Quebec City accepting an owner from “English Canada” or the United States. Here again history hampers a returned Nordiques. First of all Quebec City since the conquest of 1759 and the coming of the first English Canadian colonists, the Loyalists in the 1780s, has been like a hinterland to the rest of Canada. There have been few direct dealings or intermingling of different racial groups within its borders. The “melting pot” where French and English Canadians live and work together has always been Montreal.

One possible acceptable NHL owner for Quebec City would have been – hands up if you guessed, Jim Balsillie, failed Phoenix Coyote potential owner. But he and similar businessmen from the rest of Canada and the United States, ignorant of conducting business in the province of Quebec, are going to see the same things anglophone Quebecers see, a Parti Quebecois government imposing penalties upon them and back off. There is no Dave Thomson and Eugene Melnyk from Toronto who own the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators to fund a returned Quebec Nordiques.

This really hampers Bettman’s attempts to get the Nordiques back for Quebec. He has to work behind the scenes and pretend that the NHL rejected Quebec’s bid for false reasons. There are few rich French Canadian owners acceptable to the NHL Board he can turn to. Quebec City with a proper NHL arena and a rich suitable owner is  a sure winner, a strong NHL franchise that cannot miss, an overwhelming success. Bettman and the rest of the NHL Board know this. But the legacy of the Province of Quebec’s history is a continuing barrier.

Of course the main sufferers in all of this are the Quebec Nordiques fans who yearn for the return of the team. 80,000 of them signed a petition demanding the team be brought back, told their municipal and provincial politicians that it was all right to spend taxpayer money on a new arena. Now they want to be paid off for their support. Bettman and the NHL Board want to do this but they cannot accept an owner who is a public racist.

In part, this is a social problem that Quebec City is just starting to face. What kind of city are they going to be? If they want increased tourism from outside the province, if they want the Olympics, if they want the Nordiques back, they are going to have to reassess themselves. They have to make “foreigners” feel welcome not only to visit their city but to live there in a community too. The fact of North American professional sports is that they are played in cosmopolitan cities, both in the United States and Canada, by multi-racial teams. If Quebec wants to be a modern, North American city with North American sports teams, that is what it means. That makes French Canadian nationalism, racism, and separatism passé.

Quebec City is just starting to emerge from the “hinterland” with an increased population, increased wealth, new confidence and belief in itself, ready to deal more directly with “English Canada” and the United States. The Nordiques problem is a symbol of this “new period” they wish to enter into. That means French Canadians from Quebec City changing their attitude to having “foreigners”, “outsiders” living in their midst. If they can accept a “foreign community” living in tolerance within its boundaries, the year is 2017 and a returned Nordiques. If they cannot, it is still 1995 and a departed team.

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