The heat just got turned up further on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about getting Quebec City back in the NHL. In a recent players poll for USA Today, 67% of the NHL players who were asked which city should be the next NHL expansion team said Quebec City, the failed bidder in the last expansion, whose bid has been officially put into “suspension” by the NHL.
Actually, Quebec City would have been accepted without a problem during the last expansion along with Las Vegas, if they had a suitable bidder. In 2010, Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL was considering expansion in the future. These terms included three important factors; great fan base, a proper NHL size arena, and a suitable owner. Winnipeg is back (though through a franchise shift), Quebec has been knocking at the door, and now Hartford has said that it wants to join the party.
Quebec has now 800,000 municipal residents and a market that stretches from half way to Montreal eastward to include the four Maritime provinces. There is no problem with a fan base. It just opened the Videotron arena that the NHL loves so much, that it awarded Quebec City an exhibition World Cup game and allowed the Montreal Canadiens to play preseason exhibition games there. No problem with an arena.
That leaves the third factor, ownership, and the NHL wants nothing to do with Pierre Karl Peladeau, the owner of the Quebecor bidder. He is a known supporter of the separatist provincial political party, Parti Quebecois; he engaged in a bidding war to buy the Montreal Canadiens against current owner Geoff Molson and when he lost, he made inappropriate public racial remarks about Molson; then he tried to obstruct one of Molson’s business colleagues; and is regarded by the NHL Board as too untrustworthy to be considered a Board member. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist on the Board, no matter how much money he is offering. The damage he could potentially do far outweighs the half billion dollars that Peladeau is offering. Peladeau’s bid was doomed long before the first shovel for building the Videotron plunged into the earth. Gary Bettman turned Peladeau down without a second thought.
That still leaves the NHL’s unofficial commitment to Quebec City. Probably during the construction period, Bettman, who was seen publicly many times with the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial premier but never with Peladeau, told the premier and the mayor privately that Peladeau was an unsuitable owner, but to continue to build the arena while he searched for a new owner.
Because whatever Bettman is doing or has done is behind the scenes, behind closed doors, it is difficult to see what is going on. He has to find a new owner and get Peladeau out of the picture. For a while I speculated that Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux who played his junior hockey in Quebec City and was selling his shares of the Penguins might be the new owner. Then I thought that Patrick Roy who resigned his coaching post with Colorado with ex-Nordique General Manager Joe Sakic’s blessing might be involved in an ownership group. He said at the Quebec exhibition World Cup game that he would do all he could to get Quebec City the Nordiques back.
But whatever Bettman is doing or hasn’t done is all shrouded in dark mystery so nobody but insiders have any clue to any progress being made. The NHL is quite content to live without Quebec City so long as they do not have a suitable owner forever. But that will not make Bettman very happy after the public promises he made during his 2010 tour.
Can he get rid of Peladeau or come to terms with him? Can he find suitable French Canadian owners? And if he can’t find suitable French Canadian owners, will Quebec accept English Quebec owners like Molson or outsiders from “English Canada” or the United States who cannot speak a word of French?
Canadians of course like to believe the myth they themselves created; that Bettman is an anti-Canadian and leads a gang of American owners who are opposed to any expansion to Canada. That’s hardly true of a Commissioner who publicly invited Winnipeg and Quebec to come back, urges new arenas in Ottawa and Calgary, and vows to give Edmonton a future All Star game and a chance to host the NHL Draft after being impressed during a tour of Edmonton’s new arena.
With all this public mystery going on, Quebec remains in suspension. Now a poll of the NHL’s players reveal that they favor Quebec City to be the next expansion team. That also makes things awkward for Bettman who wants to realign the league into an NFL structure of 2 Conferences each with 4 divisions of 4 or more teams. Quebec City is in the east, meaning that the most western team, either Detroit or Columbus has to be shifted back to the Western Conference at least temporarily which neither city wants. What Bettman really wants is an expansion by a single western city or an expansion by Quebec and two western cities. The last expansion, which was supposed to bring in four “done deals” and only got Las Vegas was a humiliating failure.
If you go on the Internet, you’ll see websites claiming that the NHL has no interest in Quebec and expanding further in Canada or that Las Vegas got in instead of or at the expense of Quebec City. None of it is true. The NHL and Bettman want Quebec back (especially if they can get another $500 million). So now does the majority of the players. It is bigotry, racism, and lack of capital that is keeping Quebec City out of the NHL. Everybody wants Quebec back, but nobody has found the key to unlocking the door.