QUEBEC CITY — The great hockey fans in these parts don’t need another Roch Carrier short story to rekindle their dislike of the Maple Leafs hockey sweater — and the NHL-sized hole in their heart.
Auston Matthews is about to re-open those wounds, though it’s nothing intentional on behalf of Toronto’s young centrifuge.
When the Leafs meet the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night at Videotron Centre, it will be another taste of what this town used to revel in during the Nordiques era, when its team did battle on the big stage. The backdrop was the joi de vivre in the stands at old Le Colisee, a true Quebecois feel that’s usually muted when Toronto plays at the Bell Centre with so many Leaf sweaters stacking the house.
The grassroots passion for both the Nordiques and appreciation of the game’s best entertainment qualities made for many memorable evenings.
In the 22 years since the Nords moved to Colorado, there have been various attempts to get an NHL team back, either through expansion or shifting a troubled existing team. How can the NHL ignore a proven northern market in favour of more U.S. experiments, wail the locals, especially when some American teams struggle at the gate and Quebec took a huge step by building the major-league $400 million Videotron rink?
That’s where the arrival of Matthews is having an adverse effect. Born in California and raised in Arizona as a fan of the often endangered Coyotes, his rapid rise in status is validation to many in the league’s New York office that its Sun Belt bet, rooted in Wayne Gretzky’s move to Los Angeles, is paying dividends. Matthews was a burgeoning baseball player who fell in love with the game on a half-sized rink, among a number of NHLers now sprouting from non-traditional hockey states such as Florida and Texas.
Last season, Nashville made the Cup final, and on Tuesday, the Vegas Golden Knights played their first pre-season home game in front of more than 17,000 people at T-Mobile Arena. Kansas City and Houston are still on the NHL’s radar, if Seattle doesn’t line up its internal competing interests and gets a team first. All of that is pushing Quebec City further down the line, instead of making it a slam dunk to be the league’s evenly-balanced 32nd franchise.
Led by a potential ownership group of Quebecor publishing, which had the US$500 million expansion fee in hand in 2015, they might not be the only Canadian city in the picture. Saskatoon, eyeing Winnipeg’s successful comeback as a small market entity, keeps making noise about its own team in the 15,100-seat SaskTel Centre, site of recent NHL exhibitions. At least the Leafs’ resurgence with Matthews and a fleet of rookie stars has taken the wind out of creating a second Toronto team.
The last time the Leafs were in Quebec City was March 5, 1994; they lost 4-1 to a talent-laden Nordiques roster, topped by Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Valeri Kamensky, Mike Ricci and Adam Foote. Two years later, many of those Nords, minus Sundin, won the first of two Stanley Cups in Denver.
That young-gun demographic is another reason to feel jealousy here as fans watch the spry and stoked Leafs, structured along the same lines as the early ‘90s Nords by hoarding top draft picks. Quebec’s answer to Matthews was Eric Lindros, who didn’t want to play for Nords owner Marcel Aubut and was eventually cashed in for the players who led the transplanted Avs to the Cup after the 1995 sale.
Aubut cited the terrible business climate of the day, a Canadian recession, the regional politicians’ unwillingness to pay for a new rink at that time and rising salaries that had triggered a lockout in the ‘94-95 season. There are still tax drawbacks, but now the city is back on board. The junior Remparts are still a huge draw, peaking at close to 14,000 fans a game in 2015-16, better than NHL trouble spots such as Carolina.
“Quebec City’s love for hockey is close to mental illness,” local radio man Jerome Landry told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, pumping his 90,000-strong Nordiques Nation fan club. “We’re completely crazy about the sport. I think we can be the Green Bay of hockey.”
But as long as the NHL has teams such as Tampa Bay, Quebec is going to be a bridesmaid, unless there’s spectacular failure with a current team needing a ready-made home.
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques