Nordiques arena: A pricey precedent

Winnipeg built an NHL-calibre arena with ‘minimal’ money from Ottawa. It’ll be different for Quebec City.

Yan Doublet/Le Soleil/CP

In the annals of hockey heartache, Quebec City and Winnipeg are forever twinned. Both lost their NHL teams to the bright lights and bigger markets of America—the Nordiques to Denver in 1995, the Jets to Phoenix the very next year. After they were left in the lurch, though, the tales of the two wintery cities diverge. In Winnipeg, a modest new downtown arena, the MTS Centre, was completed in 2004, built with mostly private money, as a home for minor-league hockey and concerts, and maybe, just maybe, an NHL team again someday. In Quebec City, a plan for building a much grander arena, mainly with public money and expressly to lure back the NHL, has only recently taken shape—and sparked political controversy.

The issue is whether the federal government should contribute heavily to the project. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has pledged $180 million, and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume $50 million, leaving about $170 million they hope the feds will ante up. After Quebec Conservative MPs donned vintage powder-blue Nordiques sweaters last week to promote the scheme, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s confirmation that he’s considering the request came as no surprise. But Harper said he won’t be playing favourites. “In terms of financing these things going forward,” he said, “we’re going to have to respect the precedents we have had in the past, and be sure any treatment we’re prepared to make to one city we’re prepared to make to all.”

The potential drain on the federal treasury is enormous. New CFL stadiums are planned in Regina, Winnipeg and Hamilton, and Ottawa is redeveloping its stadium site for another try at fielding a pro football team. Edmonton and Calgary both want updated NHL rinks. In Edmonton, a $400-million-plus new home for the Oilers, spearheaded by team owner and drugstore magnate Daryl Katz, is under active consideration. The prospect of much federal or provincial money flowing into the project had looked limited at best, but the news from Quebec City, says Edmonton city manager Simon Farbrother, “changes the framework.”

Change is the word. Only last month, federal Treasury Board President Stockwell Day said, “We’ve been clear that professional sports teams—including the NHL, of which we’re all big fans—won’t be receiving federal government dollars.” That was in keeping with the Prime Minister’s long-standing personal position. A decade ago, when the Liberal government flirted with subsidizing Canadian NHL franchises, Harper, then president of the National Citizens Coalition, complained that taxpayers shouldn’t be “forced to subsidize millionaire hockey team owners.” The Liberals dropped the idea in the face of a backlash.

Those millionaires have been getting by just fine in recent years. New NHL arenas in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto were built without federal money. Even more telling is the case of Winnipeg, since the Manitoba capital is roughly Quebec City’s size. The MTS Centre cost only $133.5 million, with the province, city and federal government together contributing about $40 million, and the rest coming from private investors. The centre seats just over 15,000, compared to the 18,000 planned capacity for Quebec City’s more elaborate venue. Still, the centre’s owners contend their building is big enough for an NHL team, and they boast it’s already the third-busiest arena in Canada, behind only Toronto and Montreal.

The prospect of Quebec City vaulting ahead in the competition for a future NHL team, largely by tapping federal funds, obviously wouldn’t sit well in Manitoba. David Angus, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, contends that Winnipeg’s example shows how only “minimal” government support is actually needed to build a viable arena. “Frankly,” Angus says, “I think if they looked at the model of the MTS Centre, they’d see that they really do need the private sector to take the lead.”

So far there’s no sign of that. The most likely owner of a resurrected Nordiques franchise, Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Péladeau, has ruled out putting his own money into the building. That means Harper is being asked, not to shore up a private venture, but to make his government a major partner in a public one. And if that’s the precedent he sets for all cities, the funding of professional sports infrastructure across Canada is about to change radically.

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