The writing, in both languages, had been on the wall for years, so there was no surprise last week when the money-losing Quebec Nordiques finally died. The wake was quiet in Quebec City, where the team began 23 years ago in the World Hockey Association before joining the National Hockey League in 1979. At a largely emotionless news conference, team president Marcel Aubut and the other shareholders - the Quebec Labor Federation pension fund, La Mutuelle insurance company, the Daishowa paper company and the Metro-Richelieu grocery store chain - announced that they had sold the franchise to COMSAT Entertainment Group of Bethesda, Md., for $103 million. Aubut claimed that the team could not survive in the NHL's smallest market without a new, publicly funded arena and ongoing government support. But Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau instead offered to buy out Aubut and underwrite some team deficits for two years while the provincial government conducted a feasibility study on the arena. That, the owners decided, was not enough - and now the soon-to-be-renamed Nordiques are off to Denver.
The Nordiques were killed by a disease that afflicts many small-market teams - including the Winnipeg Jets who, a week before, narrowly escaped the same fate as the Nordiques when a proposed deal to move them to Minneapolis fell through. In Quebec, said Aubut, "The new realities of the hockey industry, the size of the Quebec City market and the absence of adequate government help sounded the knell of the Nordiques." Their revenues from advertising, TV and ticket sales did not cover skyrocketing payroll costs. And, tired of Aubut's near-constant complaints, Quebec fans had steeled themselves for the inevitable. They failed to fill the 15,399-seat Colisée for some playoff games against the New York Rangers, and only 300 fans turned out for a save-the-Nordiques rally. As well, Aubut, a federalist, was at odds with the separatist provincial and civic leaders. When asked if the province would make a last-ditch effort to save the team, Parizeau replied: "I have more important things to deal with than Mr. Aubut's every little twitch."
The NHL's governors will have to approve the sale and settle on a transfer fee to be paid to the league - possibly as high as $14 million. Even if that fee comes off the sale price, the vendors will make a handsome profit: they bought the team in 1988 for about $15 million. COMSAT, meanwhile, can be equally pleased with its end of the bargain. The company, which already owns a National Basketball Association franchise in Denver, plans to have both teams playing out of the city's McNichols Sports Arena until the new $130-million Pepsi Center is completed prior to the 1997-1998 season. The Rocky Mountain city is getting not an expansion franchise but one of the league's most talented teams. "We're bringing winners into Denver," enthused COMSAT president Charlie Lyons. Quebec's loss, Colorado's gain.
Maclean's June 5, 1995