The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NHL’s expansion era may be ending with Seattle. What does that mean for Quebec City?

Videotron Centre awaits an NHL team. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

QUEBEC CITY — The peculiar exterior of Videotron Centre invited a nickname, so some started calling it “The Cake” for how layers of white metal surround it like frosting. For one night only in September, it hosted an NHL game, as it was always intended to. The Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens played a preseason exhibition, reminding locals of the team they used to have and also the one they still hope will come.

“Why not?” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said when asked whether he’d like to see an NHL team here. “I knew it’s a hockey town. Lots of history in this town. People miss hockey here.”

Three hours before puck drop, Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau took a short flight from Montreal to Quebec City on a private jet. He wanted to sell Quebec City as a hockey market in person, perhaps because, even with an arena ready and the media conglomerate a willing owner in one of the most hockey-mad regions in the world, Quebec City has tumbled down the NHL’s priority list for expansion.

Two years ago, Quebec City submitted an expansion application at the same time as Las Vegas. The NHL picked Las Vegas while deferring Quebec City’s bid, and then the Vegas Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in their inaugural season. The league is preparing to expand again to Seattle, with the new franchise expected to be formally approved in December.

NHL is moving forward with Seattle expansion bid

Seattle, which is aiming to begin play in 2020-21, would give the NHL 32 teams, creating an equal balance between the Eastern and Western conferences. No North American professional sports league has more than 32 teams, so it seems the NHL will stop expanding after it adds Seattle. Where does that leave Quebec City?

“It’s the $100 million question,” Péladeau said. “There’s not too many scenarios. It’s either a new franchise or a relocation. And in every scenario, we’re open for business.”

Relocating a team already in the Eastern Conference is Quebec City’s best hope — ironic, considering the town lost the Nordiques when the club moved to Denver in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche. It stung even more when that same team with captain Joe Sakic won the Stanley Cup in its first season.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has insisted that he has no interest or designs on relocating a team, but in the Eastern Conference, there are some obvious candidates: The Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers all struggle with attendance.

“At least [team owners] have several scenarios, which is interesting for them and interesting for what other cities in North America are able to provide to the league,” Péladeau said. “At the end of the day, if there is a location where you have a strong business plan and a passionate owner with financial means, you have more possibilities to win and to participate in the total wealth of the league, instead of subsidizing continuously some pieces.

“There is a market, but the market’s not there. The arenas are not full. I’m not going to say they’re empty, but they’re far from being full.”

With Tom Wilson out, Capitals’ Brett Connolly adjusting to life on top line

Bettman has sought to grow the league’s American fan base by expanding into nontraditional markets, such as Las Vegas and now Seattle. In keeping with that trend, Houston has shown some interest in a club and could be an expansion or relocation destination in the Western Conference. Quebec City would no doubt be passionate about a team, but it’s not a new base for the NHL, with the Canadiens just a few hours away and many locals already rooting for them. When Bettman deferred Quebec City’s bid two years ago, he also referenced the “fluctuating Canadian dollar,” which is at 77 cents to the U.S. dollar.

Also at issue is market size. As of July 2016, the Quebec City metropolitan area had a population of roughly 800,000, which puts it just behind Winnipeg in size. That would make it the NHL’s smallest market.

“Quebec is challenged. Okay, I’m going to put it nicely: They’re challenged,” Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs told reporters in May. “Look at the income base and the population base and there probably isn’t a smaller market, so they’re going to really have to distinguish themselves in some other way, I would think.”

Considering Jacobs’s influence on the NHL Board of Governors, which votes on such matters, as the group’s chairman, those comments don’t inspire confidence in Quebec City’s NHL hopes. Péladeau argues that the market is actually around 2.5 million people. That incorporates more of the eastern part of the province, which would assume people who live two hours away are willing to make the trek to games.

There also would be some overlap with the Canadiens, a storied franchise that already has a strong local fan base. Conveniently, Quebecor has TVA Sports, the French-language broadcaster of the NHL, so Péladeau believes the broadcasting reach makes the market even larger.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis talks Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and White House visit

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has been publicly supportive of having a second team in the province — although some whisper about how genuine that really is. Péladeau believes a province with roughly 8 million people can support two teams, and a built-in rivalry between them would be good for everyone.

“If you have a team in Quebec City, the adversarial environment between Montreal and Quebec is something in itself that will sell tickets,” Péladeau said.

Videotron Centre is just three years old and seats more than 18,000, middle-of-the-pack capacity among NHL arenas. The design was modeled after Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, but for now the only team that calls the rink home is the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

For the September game between the Capitals and Canadiens, most of the lower bowl was full — impressive for the preseason. Most of the crowd wore Canadiens or Capitals attire, but there were a handful of blue Nordiques jerseys, as some remain hopeful that the team one day will be reincarnated.

“We’d like to be part of the show,” Péladeau said. “We’re fully optimistic that we have everything to succeed when our turn will come.”

Read about the Capitals:

NHL Players’ Association files appeal on behalf of suspended Capitals forward Tom Wilson

Capitals’ Lars Eller on his fight with Brad Marchand: ‘I can handle it myself’

Michal Kempny takes next step, likely to make season debut vs. Vegas