Quebec City's fans, arena impress teams ahead of expansion pitch

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QUEBEC CITY -- The game itself was another of the mundane outings that are the reality of preseason hockey. It might as well have been Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, though, for a Quebec City market and potential ownership group inching toward what they hope is the return of NHL hockey in these parts.

A sellout crowd of 18,259 sampled the goods Monday night in the first NHL game at the brand new Videotron Center, a 4-1 win for the Montreal Canadiens over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Nice atmosphere, beautiful arena, that was a lot of fun," said Canadiens center David Desharnais, who grew up in the area.

"We were the No. 3 team for the fans here tonight after the Nordiques and Canadiens," joked Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a native of Sorel, Quebec. "But that was a fun atmosphere."

The timing for this game could not have been more perfect. When the prospective Quebec ownership group delivers its expansion presentation to the executive committee of the NHL's Board of Governors in New York on Tuesday, it will include video evidence of what transpired when the Penguins and Canadiens gave life to a pristine infrastructure.

The message to other NHL owners should be obvious: the building is open, there's a deep-pocketed owner in place, and the fans are champing at the bit.

"It would be fun, for sure," Fleury said of NHL hockey returning here. "You saw the fans tonight. It was a preseason game and the fans were into it. I hope for Quebec it happens."

Fan after fan walked up to a well-dressed man in a suit Monday night to say, "Merci, Mr. Dion."

That would be Pierre Dion, president and CEO of local telecommunications, entertainment and media giant Quebecor and would-be NHL team owner. Seeing the building alive Monday night with an NHL game was a vision made real for him.

"It does bring up some emotion, because we've been working for weeks, months and years on this project," Dion, who will deliver part of Tuesday's presentation, said. "We had a great opening earlier this month with the junior [hockey] Remparts, full house. And now to see two great NHL teams here, it's quite a moment.

"It's a chance for us to see how this building is doing with two NHL teams in it. People are so happy. This venue is ready for an NHL team."

But is the NHL ready to put one there?

No big expansion decision or board vote is expected Tuesday. Commissioner Gary Bettman will provide the full board (30 owners and governors) an expansion update on Quebec and Las Vegas, but beyond that it doesn't sound as though bigger news will come until the next owners' meeting in Pebble Beach, California, in December, at the earliest, and even then it could be pushed back to June. It's still a fluid process.

The ownership groups from Quebec City and Las Vegas have been through the three phases of the league's expansion process, but it's not over yet. The league is still reviewing and asking questions.

"We've been in this process the whole summer with the three phases and we respect the NHL process," said Dion. "We're being very patient. And tomorrow is another step to that process. We're very happy and proud actually to present the Videotron Centre, also Quebecor who wants to support the team, and also the fans. The fans are incredible tonight."

Roughly two-thirds of the fans were wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Habs on Monday night, something that would have been sacrilege in this town in the heyday of the Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry. In fact, it likely would have gotten you beaten up in the stands.

But this is the reality, perhaps, of the Canadiens taking advantage of a 20-year void in this market since the Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche. Younger generations of Quebec City residents have only the Canadiens left to cheer for.

Interestingly, most of the dozen or so fans we spoke to Monday hope the NHL doesn't expand to Quebec City, but rather move an existing franchise here instead, like Atlanta going to Winnipeg. The idea is that the team would be competitive more quickly.

Perhaps this reaction is the result of a fan base watching its team leave and then win a Stanley Cup in its first season in its new home. Let's not kid ourselves, though. Expansion or relocation, fans here will take it either way. So will Quebecor.

The question that the NHL and its 30 owners must answer internally is whether the league wants to take a $500 million or so expansion fee from Quebec or whether it should keep the market open in case one of its struggling franchises needs an emergency relocation.

After all, the NHL has said that if it does expand, it could be by only one team (read: Las Vegas) for now. Which, by the way, would give Seattle more time to get its act together. On the other hand, do you just take Quebec's money now in expansion (many a struggling NHL owner would say yes) and relocate a team to Seattle one day instead?

All Dion can offer in reply to these questions is that Quebec City has a brand new rink ready to rock.

"We're ready," he said about the sparkling Videotron Centre.

Dion said his group had help from more than 70 architects from around North America in developing the Videotron Centre, and the group studied 15 current NHL arenas to get ideas for the design. It's clear that Pittsburgh's new rink had the biggest influence, which Dion confirmed.

"We were able to cherry-pick on the best ideas from across the league," said Dion. "The NHL teams were incredible, all the teams we visited were just great about telling us what they like or they don't like about their arenas. So we were able to take the best, with this result."

Habs head coach Michel Therrien was making his first visit and came away impressed.

"This is a first-place facility, that's for sure," he said.

Therrien is a Montreal native, but Quebec City has a place in his heart, too.

He played in the famous Quebec peewee hockey tournament here as a kid, then played major junior hockey here for the Remparts in 1980-81 and part of '81-82; finally, he coached the AHL's Quebec Citadelles in 1999-2000 and part of 2000-01 before his promotion to his first NHL coaching job with the Habs.

"Quebec City has always been a special place for me," said Therrien.

Asked where exactly he stood during the intense Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry of the 1980s and early 1990s, Therrien smiled.

"I grew up in St. Leonard [a borough of Montreal], so obviously I've always been a fan of the Canadiens," Therrien said in French. "But when I played for the Remparts, we had a chance to come and see the Nordiques and rub shoulders a bit with the Nordiques players. So my heart might have bent a few times. But I came back to my old, real amours."

It's not hard to get excited about Nordiques-Canadiens version 2.0.

"It would be fun," said Therrien. "It would be a healthy rivalry again. This is a city that has a lot of passion for hockey."