Quebec finance minister playing defence on NHL pre-season games subsidy

Quebec’s finance minister doubled down on his government’s decision to spend up to $7 million to bring the Los Angeles Kings to Quebec City for two games next October, telling reporters Tuesday it is key to his effort to burnish the market as a future NHL home.

Eric Girard said he wants to showcase Quebec City’s taxpayer-paid arena and let the league see how badly fans in the provincial capital want a professional hockey team.

“I have done this because I thought it’s the right step in the process to bring a team back in Quebec City — it’s a step — there will be other steps,” Girard said.

The city’s former NHL team, the Nordiques, relocated to Denver in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.

Girard said he heard from the NHL that it is considering expansion but he acknowledged that a return of the Nordiques remains a long shot. He pegged Quebec City’s chances of landing a franchise at 10 per cent.

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The Coalition Avenir Québec government has faced hefty criticism over the subsidy announced one week ago, as citizens grapple with cost-of-living woes and public sector unions are on strike o over lagging contract talks.

Girard said the criticism should be directed at him.

“It’s my initiative,” he said. “I’m the one that thinks that before getting an NHL team, we need to stage some major league events to remind the hockey world that we have an NHL infrastructure in Quebec City, that we have fans, that we have a culture, that we have history.”

Click to play video: 'Quebec public sector workers launch 3-day strike'

Quebec public sector workers launch 3-day strike

He said the offer from the Kings, whose home arena will be undergoing renovations when they decamp to Quebec City, was the only one on the table. “We tried to negotiate down, and it was this or nothing,” Girard said of the estimated expense of between $5 million and $7 million.

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According to the deal, the provincial government’s subsidy will “cover expenses in excess of the revenue generated by the event.” Girard explained that will include the costs for travel, meals and accommodations for the Kings — and for the two teams they are playing: the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers. The money will also compensate the Bruins and the Panthers for money they would have made if they had played in their arenas instead of travelling to Quebec City.

As for a report that the Montreal Canadiens were willing to play an exhibition game subsidy-free in Quebec City next year, Girard noted that offer came after the deal with the Kings had been concluded.

Girard said the timing of the announcement was more about ticket sales, which started last week. He also dismissed criticism about the subsidy from public sector unions currently negotiating with the Quebec government, noting the amount to be spent on the Kings project is a pittance compared to union demands.

“There are $8 billion on the table annually,” Girard said of the province’s latest contract offer. “Here, we’re talking about $5 million. If you tell me that all that’s missing to conclude the negotiation is $5 million, we’ll give it right away.”

The Kings, who will train in Quebec City from Oct. 2-6, will face the Bruins on Oct. 3 before taking on the Panthers two days later. They will also hold some open practices.

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The games will be played at the Videotron Centre, an 18,000-seat venue opened in 2015 in hopes of attracting an NHL franchise. It was built for $370 million, jointly paid for by Quebec City and the provincial government. Currently, the building is home to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The NHL welcomed a new team in Las Vegas in 2016 and deferred an application from Quebec City. When Seattle was awarded an expansion franchise in 2018, Quebec City was not in the running.

The last time the Videotron Centre hosted an NHL pre-season game was on Sept. 20, 2018, when the Canadiens faced off against the Washington Capital

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