Maybe It’s Time For Quebec City

TORONTO (Dec. 9) — The National Hockey League routinely discredits the annual value–ranking of its teams by Forbes Magazine, suggesting that no outside entity can provide an accurate appraisal. For the moment, however, let’s assume that Forbes was in the neighborhood when it evaluated, in the current issue, that the Arizona Coyotes are worth $400 million [U.S.], the lowest figure among the 32 NHL clubs. At the same time, let us contemplate that outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is appraised at $426.5 million, the amount of his 12–year contract, signed in 2019. If an individual in one sport is considered more treasured, economically, than an entire franchise in another sport, that franchise should be examined rather closely. As have the Coyotes since re–locating to the desert from Winnipeg for the 1996–97 NHL season. Almost never have the reviews been flattering.

Now, I understand you cannot merely pick up a professional sports team and plant it elsewhere. The financial and political ramifications are enormous. But, I can also tell you if the NHL picked up the Arizona franchise and planted it in Quebec City, its value would instantly double. Without drawing a spectator to the Videotron Centre, the Coyotes would be worth close to $1 billion. The reason is obvious: hockey to Canada is what professional football, baseball and basketball are to the United States. Intrinsic, elemental and profitable. Re–establishing the long–dormant rivalry between Montreal and Quebec City would, by itself, nudge the franchise beyond its Arizona value.

Did I mention the Videotron Centre? The 18,259–seat facility that opened in September 2015 and is begging for the NHL to return? The league, of course, would rather charge $800 million, or so, for an expansion team than re–locate an existing club. But, wouldn’t it benefit by solidifying one of its doddering franchises? The Coyotes have forever been in financial peril, especially since moving, in 2003, from downtown Phoenix to suburban Glendale. The latest pockmark occurred this week when ownership confessed to a minor oversight and chose to pay back–rent for the use of Gila River Arena. Upon the threat, naturally, of being locked out of the building in the midst of the NHL schedule. Such horror stories have been common in the quarter–century since the original Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix. The Gary Bettman administration prudently assured that Winnipeg would regain its NHL foothold, which happened when the Atlanta Thrashers moved north for the 2011–12 season. It says here, unequivocally, that a stronger league would emerge if Bettman could finagle the return of the old Quebec Nordiques.*
* TSN reported on Friday from the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Florida that Bettman will meet, in January, with government officials in Quebec… though the Commissioner emphasized that the Arizona franchise is “going nowhere.”

     
THE VIDEOTRON CENTRE IN QUEBEC CITY HAS REPLACED LE COLISEE AS THE SHOWPIECE FOR HOCKEY. IT QUALIFIES IN EVERY WAY AS A LEGITIMATE NHL FACILITY. ALL IT NEEDS IS A TEAM.

For those perhaps unaware, the Nordiques joined the NHL amid the absorption of four surviving teams from the rival World Hockey Association, coming aboard in 1979–80 with the Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers. At the time, the Montreal Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup four years in succession. But, with Scotty Bowman moving over to manage and coach Buffalo, and with Hall–of–Fame goalie Ken Dryden retiring, the Habs were in decline; they would be upset, mightily, by Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers in the first round of the 1981 playoffs.

At the same time, the Nordiques startled the hockey world by signing a trio of forwards they helped to defect from the former Czechoslovakia: brothers Peter, Anton and Marian Stastny. In 1983–84, the Nords blew past Montreal by 19 points in the old Adams Division. The clubs met in Round 2 of the playoffs and erupted into warfare during Game 6 at the Montreal Forum. The so–called la bataille du Vendredi saint (Good Friday Massacre) unfolded; the Nordiques and Canadiens brawling at the end of the second period… then before the start of the third, as players ejected from the first melee had not been notified. Referee Bruce Hood dismissed 11 skaters and doled out 252 penalty minutes. Montreal scored five goals in the final frame to win the match, 5–3, eliminating Quebec.

Another post–season clash took place the following year, the Nordiques prevailing on an overtime goal in Game 7 at the Forum by Peter Stastny. Quebec vs. Montreal evolved into the most–heated conflict in the NHL’s expansion era, rivaled only by Calgary vs. Edmonton and the New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders. The league lost a fierce interprovincial competition when the Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995–96 as the Colorado Avalanche.
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In the current NHL, the Coyotes haven’t made the playoffs sufficiently to develop a rivalry with a geographic foe. Arizona and Los Angeles met in the 2012 Western Conference final and the Kings dispatched the Coyotes in five games en route to their first Stanley Cup title. Otherwise, the Arizona club has been mostly a failure, making the playoffs only nine times in 26 seasons. A much–higher success rate was needed to engender hockey passion in the American southwest. Relocating to Quebec City, under an optimal circumstance, would revitalize the franchise and re–spark a natural enmity with the Canadiens. From a financial perspective, it’s a no–brainer.

How to accomplish the switch is, of course, the big question. Ultimately, it needs to be done. Especially given that the franchise, today, is estimated to be worth $26.5 million less than a single baseball player in Anaheim.

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THURSDAY THOUGHTS: We’ll begin to discover, fairly soon, whether Petr Mrazek can make a contribution to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season after signing a three–year, $11.4 million contract as a free agent at the end of July. To this point, Mrazek has appeared in only two games, aggravating a groin injury each time. He was reinstated too soon after the first ailment and hasn’t seen action since Oct. 30. The Leafs generally deploy their No. 2 goalie on the back end of consecutive–night games, though acquiring Mrazek was seen as a move to split the netminding chores more evenly with starter Jack Campbell. The five Toronto matches this week (from Dec. 7–16) are separated by at least one off day. The club plays on consecutive nights next weekend (Dec. 18–19) in Vancouver and Seattle. At some point, Campbell will need a rest in order to not be overextended for the playoffs — an issue during the era of Frederik Andersen… and perhaps even last spring. Who knows to what extend fatigue with Campbell contributed to the opening–round collapse against Montreal? Rookie Joseph Woll looked solid in his first three NHL starts… and quite shaky in the road loss to Winnipeg last Sunday. Ideally, the Leafs would return Woll to the AHL Toronto Marlies and be able to utilize Mrazek more frequently in place of Campbell. But, a groin injury is the biggest enemy of a goaltender. Time will tell if Mrazek can perform effectively this season… he took some lumps early in the year when the Maple Leafs were annihilated on a Saturday night by Pittsburgh’s farm team. But, there’s no scooting around Sheldon Keefe’s record as a coach in the NHL: 80–36–14 in 130 regular–season matches prior to tonight’s encounter with Tampa Bay at Scotiabank Arena. That’s a .669 success rate. And, mighty impressive. Ultimately, as with any coach, he’ll be judged by his playoff resume… there was more evidence on Thursday night why people outside of southern Ontario complain that TSN should stand for Toronto Sports Network. Once again, the hockey panel (James Duthie, Dave Poulin, Jeff O’Neill, Carlo Colaiacovo) was gushing breathlessly over Auston Matthews’ regular–season scoring exploits without a mention of how utterly irrelevant the numbers are. We’ve been through this before. Repeatedly. Perhaps it’s understood that nothing matters anymore with Matthews and Co. until the puck drops in Game 1 of the playoffs, but you wouldn’t know it from the continued lionizing of No. 34 on the network that owns 37.5% of the Leafs. Same principle applied to the Toronto–Colorado trade of July 1, 2019 which has become, undoubtedly, the worst deal of the Brendan Shanahan–Kyle Dubas era. After showing, yet again, how Nazem Kadri is blazing hot with the Avalanche this season (fourth in league scoring), the panel tried to fudge the issue with some comparatively innocuous statistic pertaining to Alex Kerfoot. Which was ridiculous. Do you think Dubas would take Kadri back — for Kerfoot? And, for the departed Tyson Barrie, who reeked in a Toronto uniform? It’s a swap that looks worse with each passing day. But, you won’t dare hear any such opinion on either of the Leafs–owned all–sports networks… another reason why Quebec City should regain a team? If not for TSN and Sportsnet spending copious travel dollars, there would be no coverage of the NHL Board of Governors’ meetings, which take place, bi–annually, at some exotic location (currently, in Palm Beach, Fla.). I recall attending the meetings for The FAN–590. You wouldn’t find an American reporter within 50 miles of the event, if any actually realized it was happening. Hockey is Canada’s sport. The NHL shouldn’t be struggling in regions where people don’t give a hoot about the game. Or, can’t remember to pay arena rental costs. Such as Phoenix… to be fair, and accurate, Dubas also pulled off one of the best trades in modern Leaf annals by pilfering Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings. I also like the group of worker bees the GM assembled for this season. Not sure what they’ll contribute when it matters, but Michael Bunting, David Kampf and Ondrej Kase have been good additions. Nick Ritchie, less so, to this point. A first look at the big kid, Kristians Rubins, is also promising. The lanky defender seems to have poise, though we clearly need more evidence.

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