There is no current news about a Quebec expansion team but that does not mean nothing significant is happening. First a brief recap.
Forget the nonsense of the official NHL story that the Quebecor bid was turned down because of conference imbalance and a low Canadian dollar. The real reason Quebec still does not have the Nordiques back is because the owner of Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau made a lot of enemies on the NHL Board, first because he is a known supporter of the separatist provincial party, Parti Quebecois, and more specifically he publicly insulted a member of the Board, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson about his suitability in owning the team because he is an anglophone Quebecer. Peladeau never retracted his remarks or apologized to Molson and that made it easy for Gary Bettman and the NHL to turn down Quebecor’s bid long before construction started on the new Videotron arena. The recent election of Molson to the NHL Executive Committee confirms that Bettman and the Board were backing him to the hilt. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist on its Board and acted accordingly.
That did not solve the problem of Quebec. In 2010 Gary Bettman offered terms of readmission to all three ex-NHL cities that lost their franchises, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford. He publicly consorted with the Quebec Provincial Premier, the Quebec City mayor and other important businessmen and government officials and kept encouraging them to spend nearly $400 million taxpayer dollars on a new arena. Probably privately he told the premier and the mayor that Peladeau was an unsuitable owner but to keep building the arena while he handled the ownership problem.
Finding a suitable owner meant that Gary Bettman would work behind the scenes as much as possible so it is difficult to know what is going on. I have speculated that the resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche may be part of an attempt to put a suitable ownership group together.
Part of the problem is that there may not be enough rich French Canadians who want to own an NHL franchise. Another solution would be to accept outside help but Americans, investors from “English Canada” might fear an elected Parti Quebecois provincial government and have stayed away from investing in Quebec.
There is another possible solution. Like the Atlanta crisis a few years ago, Bettman and the Board may know about certain members of the Board who find their current cities unsuitable and would welcome a move to Quebec which is the coming city in Canada, soon, maybe within a decade to have over 1 million residents.
There would be no problem in attracting sell-out crowds, attracting corporate sponsors, and selling Quebec Nordiques merchandise for a Quebec team. The market includes all of eastern Quebec province and the four Maritime provinces. Take away the racial and political problems, Quebec with a new arena is a marvelous investment opportunity, one of the better NHL franchises, a sure winner. Adding the city would restore the Quebec-Montreal rivalry, once the best in the NHL, allow Bettman to keep his promise, and get many of his Canadian critics off his back.
The only real drawback to Quebec getting an established NHL franchise instead of an expansion team is that the NHL would have to forgo that $500 million expansion fee. But in compensation, a current weak franchise would become an instant strong one. And the NHL could still get its $500 million by expanding to another western city instead which would allow the league to realign as well.
So if Quebec is to get its team by a franchise shift instead of expansion, who are the candidates? One of the most obvious ones, Arizona will not be moved because it will cause further conference imbalance. If the Coyotes move, they will be moved to a western city.
So the shifted franchise will come from the Eastern Conference. Based on current NHL attendance, the top choices can all said to be the “usuals”
1. Carolina Hurricanes
They have the worst attendance in the NHL and the owner, Peter Karmanos is known to want to sell. Currently the Hurricanes are drawing approximately 60% arena capacity, by far the worst in the NHL. The reasons for not moving the team are that the Hurricanes have won the Stanley Cup so there is some kind of tradition. And the reason for poor attendance might be because the Hurricanes have not iced a contending team for a long time. But if they added a star player and contended again, would the fans come back? Still they are considered the number one target.
2. New York Islanders
They have been treated like poor cousins of the New York Rangers for years. Despite the heritage of winning four Stanley Cups in a row, a feat that has only been accomplished twice before, the Islanders have been treated shabbily since their glory days. Nothing was done to replace their outmoded arena with a new, larger, modern one. Currently the Islanders play in probably the worst arena in the NHL, the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn which is far from their original fan base, is the second smallest arena in the league, and has lots of obstructive view seats. A few years ago, a large delegation of Quebec fans came down en masse and bought a large quantity of unsold Islander tickets to show the NHL they were in earnest to get the Nordiques back. The Islanders are a target all right. But moving this franchise would be a tremendous blow and loss of status to the NHL in the United States because of the Islanders history and heritage. And it is said that yet another new arena might be built in Queens. That would be the preferred solution for the NHL.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
It is one thing to move the Hurricanes and Islanders but there would be no problem in moving the inglorious Blue Jackets who have only made the playoffs twice in 16 years and have never won a playoff round. The Blue Jackets try to get fans from a cursed hockey area in the United States, Ohio-Indiana which I have labeled the “Death Valley” of American hockey. Nobody can explain why in an area so close to the Canadian border and between such hockey loving cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo in the east and Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit in the west, hockey is so unpopular. In these two states are buried the dead bodies of the Indianapolis Racers, Cincinnati Stingers, Cleveland Crusaders, and Cleveland Barons, all from the 1970s. As mentioned in an earlier article, the NHL can never forget the horrible attendance of the ghost of the Cleveland Barons. That is why when NHL expansion is talked about, these cities are never mentioned. Columbus is simply the most successful team ever to inhabit these states. But they average just over 15,000 fans per game which is only 82% arena capacity. If the wonderful turnaround of the current season still does not attract fans, maybe the owners will conclude that it is time to move to Quebec where they will be appreciated.
4. Florida Panthers
Florida ranks with inglorious Columbus. They made the Stanley Cup Final once, two decades ago. Since then they seldom make the playoffs. Gary Bettman had great difficulty finding new owners for the team a few years ago. The new ownership has made the team playoff contenders but they still only get 85% arena capacity for their games. Leaving the reluctant Miami market for Quebec is a real option for the Panthers.
5. New Jersey Devils
The Devils are the other poor relations of the New York Rangers. Like the Islanders they have a winning heritage with three Stanley Cups, but mostly they are a hockey after-thought after the Rangers and Islanders. They average 14.5 thousand fans which is 88% capacity. But moving the team is ugly for the NHL because of their past success and heritage. Perhaps moving to another part of New Jersey, away from the New York area where they can find fans that will really identify with the team is the best solution.
Is this the real plan of Gary Bettman and the NHL Board? Do the same thing as in the Atlanta crisis? Wait until the current season ends and then shift an existing franchise to Canada. That would be a suitable gift for Canada’s Sesquicentennial.