By Jason Menard
If you build it, they will come.
No, it’s not the premise of a hokey, corn-fed baseball film. It’s the divining principle behind various levels of government willing to bet big on a prospect that is only guaranteed of doing one thing – taxing an already taxed province.
That prospect is the return of the Quebec Nordiques (or whatever name they chose – Concordes would be kind of poetic, wouldn’t it?) to la belle province. As a hockey decision it’s an absolute no-brainer: the Canadiens/Leafs rivalry seems to be diminishing a little more each year as both teams haven’t exactly been cup contenders over the past three decades; and the Habs/Senators forced rivalry really has never taken off.
However, the idea of resurrecting those late 70s/early 80s battles between the blue-blanc-et-rouge and the fleur-de-lys bedecked blue-and-white skating nationalism of the Nordiques (and don’t forget the cool, but confusing, logo. It’s supposed to be an igloo and a hockey stick, but I always found it looked more like an elephant) is a hockey fan’s dream. The rivalry was just getting good when the Nordiques were sold and moved to Colorado.
On-ice, the decision is a no-brainer. Off-ice, the issues aren’t insurmountable either. While the market may be relatively small (2006 census numbers have the population just a hair shy of 500,000), the rabid fan base combined with the fact that Montreal’s only a couple of hours away, should be sufficient. And with Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau rumoured to play a key role in the franchise – up to and including ownership – the corporate support question has been answered.
All told, this small-market should be able to fill a moderately sized arena nightly for an NHL franchise for the foreseeable future – but there’s the rub!
Actually, those are a couple of rubs: no arena and no franchise. But that’s OK. Quebec’s politicians are falling all over themselves ready to build a new arena for a team that doesn’t exist. NHL commissioner has repeatedly played the role of the pretty girl, with the Quebec fan base acting as the desperate suitor. He’s not discouraging the fans from buying that shiny new car – but he’s also not promising them a date once they’ve got the keys in their collective hands.
But despite the lack of a franchise and the challenges involved in getting a franchise to relocate – let’s not forget how a certain RIM owner with much deeper pockets was cast aside recently by the league in favour of the existing owners dumping buckets of money on that desert dog known as Phoenix – Quebecers appear to be willing to place a pretty sizeable wager on a dream.
The city and the province have both signaled a willingness to split the cost of a $400-million NHL-calibre arena, to be ready by 2015. In fact, the city has recently increased its share of the pie that it’s willing to eat to $187 million – all because the feds are a little iffy about shelling out public funds for private sporting ventures.
Unfortunately, Quebecers are amongst the most taxed Canadians – in every sense of the word. They’re already footing the bill for an aggressive and progressive social network, and adding $200 million to the provincial debt load is a tough concept to swallow – especially as that expenditure comes with no guarantee that there will be a primary tenant ready to move into the venue.
Yes, the new Colisee (or Peladeauland, as it should be called) will be a multi-purpose venue, but let’s face facts – it’s a hockey rink first and foremost. Concerts and shows are a nice appetizer (and Céline is locked into a Vegas contract for years to come, so forget her instant-teller-like appeal to the market), but it’s the upwards of 50 games per year (including pre-season and, eventually, playoffs) that will be the venue’s bread and butter. If there’s no team in the cards that taxpayer-funded bread’s going to get pretty stale awfully fast.
The Plains of Abraham may be the new Field of Dreams, but while the “if you build it, an NHL franchise will come” thought may be nice conceptually, the very real challenges that can come from such an open-ended expenditure of funds with no promise of a payoff can very quickly turn this dream into a nightmare.