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Conference Board says obstacles remain for NHL teams in Quebec City and Winnipeg

Fans wearing Winnipeg Jets jerseys cheer at the women's preliminary round hockey game between Canada and Sweden at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. Despite improving conditions in Quebec City and Winnipeg since the departure of the Nordiques and Jets, the Conference Board of Canada says there are still obstacles to overcome before an NHL franchise can prosper there.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gene J. Puskar

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Fans wearing Winnipeg Jets jerseys cheer at the women's preliminary round hockey game between Canada and Sweden at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. Despite improving conditions in Quebec City and Winnipeg since the departure of the Nordiques and Jets, the Conference Board of Canada says there are still obstacles to overcome before an NHL franchise can prosper there.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gene J. Puskar

OTTAWA - Despite improving conditions in Quebec City and Winnipeg since the departure of the Nordiques and Jets, the Conference Board of Canada says there are still obstacles to overcome before an NHL franchise can prosper there.

The conclusion is contained in the third of a series of studies entitled: "To Play in the Major Leagues; What Makes Professional Sports Teams Successful."

The Conference Board, an economic policy think-tank, bases its analysis on four factors that worked against the Nordiques and the Jets, who moved on in 1995 and 1996, respectively.

The four factors are: demographic sizes of the market, level of household incomes, corporate presence and comparable conditions in other NHL cities.

It concludes that Quebec City and Winnipeg have bigger populations now than when the franchises first existed in the cities and that their populations have higher incomes.

The Board also says that thanks mainly to better market conditions, the two Canadian cities are in a more advantageous position—that's explained by the strong Canadian dollar compared to the U.S. dollar and the NHL cap on salaries.

But the main negative aspect that still remains is the weak presence of major corporations in both cities.

In 2009, there were only 17 in Quebec City and 30 in Winnipeg.

Mario Lefebvre, co-author of the study, says whether general conditions are good enough to bring NHL teams to passionate supporters in both cities, remains to be confirmed.

"Quebec City has a lower level of big companies," he states.

"In Winnipeg, fans of amateur sport would have to support National Hockey League and Canadian Football League teams and in order to overcome these obstacles, all interveners—without exception—would have to be very motivated and ready to work hard."

The Conference Board established the demographic baseline at which a Canadian city could support an NHL team at 800,000 inhabitants.

Quebec City and Winnipeg have seen their populations climb from 680,000 to 750,000 since they lost their hockey franchises.

It says Winnipeg should ideally count on a population base of at least one million people so it could also support the Blue Bombers.

The Board notes that income levels in both cities have increased in recent years, with each now among the top nine Canadian cities.

Quebec City is in seventh spot, while Winnipeg is now in fifth place.

The most favourable change pointing to the return to NHL teams to Canada is better market conditions, with the Canadian dollar fluctuating almost at par with the American green back.

The Conference Board also predicts that the loonie will stay there for a good period of time.

The Board's analysis notes that Canadian NHL teams were in an unfavourable position during the 1990s because the Canadian dollar (at 70 cents) was weaker than the U.S. dollar.

It also says the imposition of an NHL salary cap—even if it could do more in terms of revenue sharing—helps more restricted smaller markets remain competitive with large hockey markets.

The Conference Board isn't specific when it comes to the minimum number of companies needed to assure the viability of a pro sports franchise.

But it notes in passing that Quebec City has less than any other city with an NHL franchise, while Winnipeg has more than Edmonton and Ottawa.

The study's authors add that even if Quebec City and Winnipeg reach the ceilings necessary when it comes to population and household incomes, the cities still face other important challenges.

Quebec City needs a new arena, which it plans to build in the coming years and while Winnipeg has an arena, it will still have to add at least 2,000 seats and corporate boxes.

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