Montreal·In Depth

History of a dream: Régis Labeaume's unending quest for NHL hockey

For close to a decade, Régis Labeaume has doggedly tried to acquire an NHL franchise for his city. It is his idée fixe. Did the NHL just crush his dream?

Quebec City's mayor wants an NHL team, but at what cost?

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume appears unfazed at the latest setback to his dream of seeing NHL hockey back in his city. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Régis Labeaume just had his dream crushed, but the Quebec City mayor didn't seem to notice.

Labeaume has spent close to a decade doggedly trying to acquire an NHL franchise for his city. It is the idée fixe of his tenure at city hall. 

In pursuing this dream, he has managed get an 18,000-seat arena built, find a corporate backer willing to pay the NHL's half-billion dollar expansion fee and win re-election by landslide margins. 

But after all the lobbying and the money and the construction, the NHL said no, announcing last week that Las Vegas would be the site of its newest team.

Labeaume's reaction was, well, typical Labeaume.

"I'm convinced we'll have a club," he said Friday.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and Bill Foley after the league's announcement it would be expanding to Las Vegas. Foley is the majority owner of the Las Vegas team. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

'It's pointless'

Quebec City has been rich in nostalgia for the Nordiques ever since les Bleus packed up and left for Colorado in 1995.

But hockey fans in the city seemed resigned to the fact the closest thing they would have to a home team was their one-time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.

In 2007, though, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hinted that the league found the prospect of returning to Canada "intriguing." That set Quebec City abuzz.

Bettman made it clear the city needed to meet two conditions to be taken seriously; replace the Colisée, the rickety 50-year-old barn the Nordiques called home; and find a potential owner with deep pockets.

It was a tall order for Labeaume, who had just been elected as the city's mayor in 2007. Building an arena was hard enough, but finding a financial backer? That was something else entirely. 

Quebec City, after all, is a government town. The big money is in Montreal.

"It's pointless, people get excited for no reason," Labeaume said at the time.

The Canadiens and the Nordiques had a bitter rivalry, often referred to as the Battle of Quebec. (Arne Glassboug/Canadian Press)

Enter Péladeau

When George Gillett put the Canadiens up for sale in 2009, he fielded offers from several different groups before accepting a reported $500-million bid from the Molson family.

Among those who lost out was Quebecor Media, headed at the time by Pierre Karl Péladeau.

Péladeau was furious at having lost the bidding war. According to the magazine L'actualité, Labeaume quickly placed another idea in Péladeau's head: bringing the NHL back to Quebec City.

Labeaume was facing re-election that year, and promising a return of the Nordiques was the kind of populist move that has become a staple of Labeaume's political career. 

In the fall of 2009, just months before the election, he announced plans to build a $400-million, 18,000-seat arena. He was unambiguous about the purpose of the project.

"The population of Quebec City wants an NHL hockey club," Labeaume said.   

Quebec Nordiques fans wait outside the Videotron Centre on Sept. 12, 2015, the date of the first ever hockey game at the new facility. The Quebec Remparts played the Rimouski Oceanics of the QJMHL. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Build it and they will come. Right?

Initially the arena was slated to cost $400 million. Labeaume wanted the federal and provincial governments to pay $175 million each, while the city would pick up the rest.

The feds balked at financing a professional sports arena. In the end, the Quebec government ponied up $200 million, leaving Quebec City on the hook for $170 million. 

And this without any guarantee that the city would get the team Labeaume wanted so badly. 

"We don't want people building a building on our account expecting that there is going to be a franchise," Bettman said in 2011. 

But Labeaume forged ahead. The Videotron Centre — Quebec City sold the operating rights without tender to Quebecor — opened in 2015.

It lost $1.4 million in its first quarter of operation.

"I'm not the type who gets depressed for three months.I'm already on to the next thing," Labeaume said. (Radio-Canada)

The next thing

While Labeaume worked to secure a new arena, Quebecor channeled its desire to own the Canadiens into efforts to bring back the Nordiques.

The media giant made a $10 million deposit with the NHL last year, the league's price to formally consider its expansion application. 

Besides the application fee, a successful franchise would have to pay a $500-million US expansion fee. That could be as much as $750 million in Canadian funds, depending on exchange rates.

But despite Quebecor's willingness to foot the bill and despite the gleaming new arena, the NHL opted to "defer" a decision on expanding to Quebec City.

That means if the city still wants a team sooner rather than later, Quebecor will have to buy an existing team and move it to Quebec City — something the NHL is not keen on doing. 

Even before last week's announcement, Quebec City residents seemed to be losing hope of seeing the Nordiques play again. 

A poll conducted this winter suggested only 49 per cent of residents felt the team's return was imminent. That number was 65 per cent one year earlier. 

But Labeaume appeared unfazed by the NHL's decision to head south, rather than north. 

"I'm not the type who gets depressed for three months," Labeaume said. "I'm already on to the next thing."

He is up for re-election next year. 

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