Hockey and pride as seen from Québec City

In my post last month about the problems of Canadian hockey, one factor I included–alongside the failure to transmit interest in the sport to new, more diverse generations–was the transformation of the National Hockey League into a much less Canadian-dominated environment, the Stanley Cup having emerged in the context of the Canadian game, while two of the six NHL teams of the Original Six era were Canadian (Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs). The Original Sex era ended in 1967, and the league has since expanded hugely, such that there are now thirty teams total in the league versus six Canadian (the Vancouver Canucks, the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators, the Montreal Canadiens). The Canadian proportion fell further because two teams were shifted out of the country: the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, and the Quebec Nordiques (from Quebec City) became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995.

Hockey is a major element of Canadian identity. It’s a major element of Québec identity, such that the dream of a Québec hockey team competing internationally–something that is going to come about, in a limited way in an international versus teams from France, Italy and Switzerland–inspires sovereigntists. It’s a major element of city identity: all the millionaire metropolitan areas of Canada, all those conurbations with a population of at least a million people, have their teams. Neither Winnipeg nor Québec City have teams any longer, and indeed the fact that they no longer host NHL hockey teams has much to do with their relatively small sizes, with roughly seven hundred thousand people in their broader metropolitan areas. Losing their teams does nothing to help urban pride.

Quebec City, at least, has managed to fight back by leading a campaign–supported by the provincial government–to try to bring major-league hockey back. To do that, a NHL-calibre stadium would be needed, and to do that, you’ll need public funding. As far back as last summer, federal funding matching provincial and municipal support for such a stadium was highlighted as something that could help the minority Conservatives gain precious seats in the Québec City area. The problem was that this, whether funded directly by the federal government or indirectly through gas tax refunds is massively unpopular elsewhere in Canada, where other needs and/or other philosophies re: government funding of sports rule. And in the end, the problem was ended when the city and the province decided to pay for it all. Huge costs notwithstanding.

It’s the province with the highest debt load in Canada, it has major challenges funding its health system and its Crown prosecutors have gone on strike over salaries that lag far behind their Canadian peers.

Yet Quebec’s government Thursday announced it would pour $200 million into a new coliseum in Quebec City, whose raison d’être is drawing back a National Hockey League team, something the NHL has warned is not guaranteed.

It amounts to a near 50-50 financing arrangement with Quebec City for the estimated $400 million venue, placing the burden almost entirely on taxpayers.

[. . .]

The risk for Quebec City is going up dramatically. It had originally committed $50 million. Now it’s on the hook for $187 million. (A group of citizens has raised $13 million to “reserve” seats in the new venue.)

At a news conference, embattled Premier Jean Charest was all smiles as Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume lavished upon him praise for his commitment to the controversial project.

One of the first questions the two politicians faced, however, was how “moral” or “ethical” it was to place nearly all of the burden of building the arena on taxpayers, while the province faces huge doctor shortages and health system funding shortages, among other problems.

“It surprises me to hear some commentaries on the justification for the project,” Charest replied. “We must ask the question: Is it normal that a city like Quebec City doesn’t have an arena?”

And in the end, even when it’s built by 2015, Scott Stinson writing in the National Post pointed out that expanding back to Quebec City runs contrary to the business-oriented ethos of the NHL.

Let’s pretend, then, that when [NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman] has said repeatedly that Quebec City would be a fine home for an NHL franchise if it had a suitable owner and a suitable arena and — most importantly — if there was a franchise that the league was willing to relocate, what he really was telling the politicians that if they build him an arena, he will get right on with bringing them a team.

It would run contrary to everything Mr. Bettman has done in his tenure atop the NHL, which has included not only moving teams from Canada, but working feverishly to prevent them from returning. In the recent past, he has had both a wealthy prospective owner (Jim Balsillie) and an NHL-suitable building (Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum), but still he wanted to keep a struggling team stuck in the hockey hotbed of Nashville, where a local newspaper Thursday announced the arrival of Ottawa Senators forward Mike Fisher as “Predators acquire Carrie Underwood’s husband.” Seriously.

[. . .]

Should Quebec build its arena, it would join Winnipeg, Hamilton, Portland, Kansas City, Orlando, Sacramento, Oakland, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Indianapolis among cities that could theoretically host an NHL franchise — and that’s just the list I could count on two hands.

Why should anyone think Quebec, given the history of the NHL under Mr. Bettman, would be at the top of the relocation table?

People have great hopes for their city. I do hope that Bettman would work with Québec City on this, since hockey is so core. Major league sports shouldn’t be thought of as money for the communities where the teams are based, since they lose money–I’m only glad that Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s desire for a NFL expansion team is almost likely going to come to naught. But then, Torontonians don’t care so much about American-rules footballs as Québec City cares for hockey. My suspicion is that he’ll break hearts in Québec City even with the most extensive public funding possible.

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One Response to Hockey and pride as seen from Québec City

  1. Pingback: [BRIEF NOTE] On the NHL and hockey and Canada and the sunbelt « A Bit More Detail

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