Quebec City’s chance to reset the tone
The Videotron Centre clearly does not want to just be for the Quebec Remparts. That was how its shuttered predecessor, Colisee Pepsi, rode out its final seasons.
This month marks the five-year anniversary of the groundbreaking for Quebec City’s bigger, newer and improved arena. The who’s who of ex-Nordiques in attendance all but self-explained the community’s hope of luring the NHL back.
The ice for that endeavor has never been the strongest among those cities hankering for higher-end hockey. But it has never been thicker than it will be throughout this fall.
One week after the aforementioned fifth anniversary, USA Today conducted an NHL player poll regarding ideal expansion sites. With one respondent for each of the 31 existing franchises (though three teams were not represented), 21 chose Quebec. Seattle was a distant second with nine backers, while the 31st vote went to Houston.
Those results were printed this past Monday, one day before the second anniversary of the Videotron Centre’s ribbon-cutting. But they came out amidst new strides for Seattle in its effort to spruce up its own venue.
On the heels of the NHL players’ poll, the distant runner-up in their collective preferences ramped up its renovation ambitions for KeyArena. And as the Canadian Press articulated Tuesday, “the NHL has not hidden its interest in Seattle.”
As it was even before this month, would-be Western Conference cities were already looking like stronger contenders than Quebec. Based in part on the current divisional balance, this website deemed Milwaukee the most logical landing point for Team 32.
Milwaukee has the added advantage of consistently sustaining a team at the Triple-A level for 40 years and counting. Seattle, like Quebec, is a time-honored major-junior city, but does not have the same track record of losing pro teams. Sure, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Metropolitans didn’t last, but they folded before the NHL expanded to America.
Nine-plus decades later, it is no secret the U.S. tends to eclipse hockey’s mother country with NHL team destinations. Restoration of the Winnipeg Jets aside, the Videotron Centre is a multifold underdog in spite of the players’ views.
One upcoming event could, at the very least, give La Vieille Capitale a baby pivot back in the right direction. And it is not the annual return of Montreal Canadiens preseason action this Monday and next Wednesday.
Six weeks after USA Today’s poll went public, Quebec will host its highest-caliber hockey game in at least 15 years. The centralized Canadian women’s team will entertain its American counterpart at the Videotron Centre on Oct. 22.
Unlike the two NHL exhibitions in September, the Olympic preview will essentially feature every PyeongChang-bound player. The teams will be in midseason form, and the audience ought to be in a midseason mood.
Depending on the reception and atmosphere, the event could symbolize an emphatic resurfacing from the choppy final decades of Le Colisee. For now, Quebec’s hard-luck history with pro hockey touches every corner and still leaves a rancid residue.
After the Nordiques departed for Denver in 1995, the since-defunct IHL swooped in with the Rafales. Le Colisee’s first minor professional tenant sold an impressive 11,575 tickets per night in its first season. Yet that team evaporated after two seasons in 1998, and was replaced by an equivalent AHL franchise 18 months later.
The Quebec Citadelles had a theoretically favorable arrangement as the Canadiens new affiliate. But regardless of whether that partnership unified the province, they were gone by 2002. They never crossed the 5,000 threshold under the attendance heading in three seasons.
And in the women’s game, the CWHL’s Quebec Phenix lasted only through the league’s inaugural campaign in 2007-08. Just like the Habs on the men’s side, the Montreal Stars have since been the province’s lone professional franchise.
All of those false starts preceded the Videotron Centre, where the Remparts averaged a franchise-best 13,865 nightly fans in 2015-16. But last season witnessed a sophomore slide to 9,421, a smaller per-game average than in any of the final nine years of Le Colisee.
Quebec, which until May of 2016 also expressed 2026 Olympic hosting aspirations, simply needs a boost to its NHL case. The U.S.-Canada card is its best foreseeable bet in the wake of its informal, but real, NHLPA endorsement.
Established NHL Canadian venues never fail to fill up when the IIHF women’s titans converge. Vancouver drew 16,805 spectators to a Thursday-night final in its 2010 Olympic tournament. Toronto’s Air Canada Centre packed 17,227 for a tune-up tilt on Dec. 30, 2013.
A comparable crowd with palpable passion Oct. 22 cannot single-handedly stabilize the Videotron Centre’s NHL candidacy. But it can salvage Quebec’s case for what will likely be the league’s last expansion go-round.
It will need to. No other opportunity sits on the horizon, and only the hockey gods know when additional encouraging data like the USA Today poll will emerge.