On Tuesday, December 4th at the NHL Board of Governors meetings held in Sea Island, GA, the NHL announced that Seattle had been granted an expansion franchise that will begin play during the 2021-2022 season. (For those of you who are already planning ahead, the expansion draft rules will be the exact same as the ones used during the previous expansion draft.) The unnamed Seattle Franchise (I’m partial to Totems), will be the 32nd team in the NHL bringing the league to a nice round number. During the meetings, Commissioner Gary Bettman stated that the NHL was done expanding for quite a while unless a perfect situation presented itself.
Reading between the lines, that means Quebec, who has been trying to bring a team to to Quebec City for over 15 years and even built the Videotron Centre in 2015 as an incentive to the NHL, has missed its opportunity to bring in a team via league expansion. The only thing left for Quebec is to bring in a team via re-location.
Naturally, this has set off a Twitter storm of speculation because Quebec must have a hockey team according to hockey purists. If expansion is over with, it’s time to start looking at which struggling Sun Belt team is ripe to become the next Atlanta Thrashers (RIP).
As has been typical for the last 15ish years, the first team to be linked to Quebec City is our very own Florida Panthers. Any time there is a lightly attended Panthers game, you can be sure some media outlet/member is running to his phone at light speed to tweet out a Florida to Quebec hot take Remember that article from some random hockey website that illegally used our own photo to make fun of the low attendance for a 3:00 PM pre-season game? It was a Quebec based website. To be fair, the attendance this season hasn’t been great. The Panthers currently sit 30th in the NHL in attendance at just over 12k tickets sold per game. A big reason for this has been the slow start to the season, but that’s a discussion for another article.
Obviously, relocation talk bothers Panthers fans. There are plenty of us (myself included) who will take up the sword to defend this team and fan base every time the relocation rumors start. But here is the reality, you don’t need to do it. The Panthers aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
To their credit, owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu have done and said all the right things. They have shown no desire to sell the team and have tried to turn this long struggling franchise into a winner. Again, not the article to discuss whether their efforts/decisions are working, all that matters here is that the effort is there.
In 2015, the organization cut a deal with Broward County to provide the Panthers with $86 million in tourism tax dollars in exchange for the development rights to the 140 acres of parking lot space around the arena. The deal extended the Panthers lease of the BB&T Center until 2028 with an opt-out in 2023 if the Panthers show losses of $100 million between 2015 and 2023.
The lease extension was a no-brainer for both the organization and the County. That tourism tax money was sitting in the County’s coffers with nowhere to use it because the money was only allowed to be used to promote tourism. So at bare minimum, the Florida Panthers are here to stay until at least 2023 and most likely here through 2028.
Here is another reason the NHL wants to keep a team in South Florida. They want to grow the game. I was part of the first generation of South Florida hockey players. Without the Panthers, I never pick up a hockey stick and begin playing the sport that has helped define my life. You are now seeing players from South Florida and similar Sun Belt markets make impacts in Junior Hockey and even the NHL. Shayne Gostisbehere (Sunrise, FL) and Auston Matthews (Scottsdale, AZ) are two big names that likely never pick up a stick without Sun Belt expansion. The irony isn’t lost on me that the savior of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a kid from Scottsdale, Arizona. How many Leafs fans do you think have tweeted out that the Coyotes or Panthers should be moved?
Gary Bettman, for all his faults as commissioner, is committed to growing the game. He knows that putting a team in Quebec City doesn’t get anyone to pick up a stick for the first time. The kids in Quebec City will be on skates as soon as they can walk regardless of whether or not their is a NHL team playing in their town. Keeping the Panthers in Sunrise leaves open the door for the next Auston Matthews to pick up a stick.
On it’s own, the Panthers are pretty safe from moving any time soon, but here is the thing that should really put Panthers’ fans at ease, Quebec isn’t really an attractive destination for a NHL franchise. The “desire” may be there from hockey purists who love to hate on everything Sun Belt related, but that’s where the positives end.
On September 20th, the Montreal Canadiens and Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals played an exhibition game at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. You would think that it would be standing room only during the one time all season Quebec City will host two NHL teams. The attendance was 11,296 and capacity is 18,259.
The relocation buffs love to tweet up a storm any time a Sun Belt team has low attendance, but here we have the only game all season held at the Videotron Centre and there are curtains blocking sections off and plenty of empty seats in the lower bowl. Oddly enough all those Sun Belt hating twitter accounts weren’t tweeting Empty Seat pics that night. I wonder why?
Do you want to know one of the big reasons why Vegas and Seattle jumped Quebec City in line for an expansion franchise? To show the NHL how badly they wanted a NHL team, they held season ticket holder drives. Seattle had theirs in March and had 33,000 deposits of $500 or $1000 within a few hours and a waitlist for another 32,000 deposits by the next day. They didn’t even get an actual hockey game as a test balloon like Quebec City did this season and were able to get people to commit that much money in the hope that the NHL would grant them a franchise. And yet, Quebec City couldn’t even sell 18,000 tickets to the only game with NHL players in Quebec City all year.
The promises of nothing but sellouts if games were played in Quebec City is a myth. They just had an opportunity to show us how much they want a NHL team and failed. Remember this next time the Twitter mob starts posting pics of the Panthers attendance woes.
Attendance may be the thing everyone always points to when it comes to why teams should or shouldn’t be moved, but the #1 reason is ALWAYS money. Ticket sales may have been how teams made their money 30 years ago, but in 2018, it’s all about corporate sponsorships and TV deals. Quebec City is a rural city without much of a corporate footprint. The economy is driven by public administration and government contract jobs. Aka, there won’t be many companies competing to be corporate sponsors. For comparison’s sake, Quebec City has a population of just over 800,000 people and a GDP of $34 Billion, while South Florida has a population of just over 5 million and a GDP of $340 Billion. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which market appeals more to the NHL. Without corporate sponsorship dollars to boost the bottom line, Quebec City just doesn’t make sense.
Even with 24+ years of frustration and struggles, the potential is still there in South Florida to build a strong hockey community. Look at what Tampa has been able to build with a decade of good hockey. Do you really think the people are that much different on the west coast of Florida? Do you really think there won’t be a strong hockey fan base if the Florida Panthers can ever figure out how to string a few good years together? Bettman knows that if Tampa can do it, so can South Florida.
Quebec City made sense as a hockey destination when the NHL was a small regional sport and ticket sales were all that mattered. Today, the NHL is trying to replicate the success of the NBA and grow into an international brand. South Florida as the Gateway to the United States for South America and most of Western Europe can help with that goal. Quebec City can’t. The fact is that Quebec City is extremely limited as an NHL franchise when it comes to pretty much everything except potentially looking good on TV during home games.
The NHL isn’t going to push Viola and Cifu to move the Panthers to Quebec City. They know which market is best for the league long term. Quebec City’s only real chance is to steal a team similar to how Oklahoma City stole the Seattle SuperSonics. The Panthers aren’t for sale and Viola and Cifu seem determined to make hockey in South Florida work. So relax and focus on stuff that actually matters concerning the Panthers. (Again, that’s for another article.)
This brings me back to those trolls who are always calling for the Panthers to be moved to Quebec City or anywhere else. It takes a really terrible kind of person to openly root for a city to lose its sports franchise. Whether or not that team is playing in front of sold out crowds or struggling, there are still thousands of people who love that team who would be devastated and thousands of employees who would find themselves unemployed if that team picked up and left.
I remember when the Videotron Centre was announced somewhere around 2010-2011. A bunch of Quebec fans toured NHL arenas “scouting” potential relocation targets. I attended the game the Nordiques contingent came to Sunrise. To hear them talk, the Panthers were already their team. It was despicable to watch fans who had previously gone through the pain of losing their franchise gloat to Panther fans how they were here to steal our hockey team. Well it has been 8ish years and the Panthers are still our team and will stay our team for at least 5 more years.
So ignore the hockey purists and trolls on Twitter who call for the Panthers to be moved every time there is a viral tweet of the attendance at a Panthers game. Quebec City doesn’t make sense for plenty of reasons. The NHL just passed on them for the second time in less then 5 years. The relocation talk is nothing but the ramblings of those bitter that Quebec City got passed on again. Nobody with any actual power is talking about moving our team. The Panthers are staying at the BB&T Center for the foreseeable future.
As always, follow me on Twitter @CF3234.