QUEBEC - Tens of thousands of people turned Quebec City into a sea of Nordiques blue on Saturday in a lovefest that was part nostalgia, part fervent hope.
They assembled on the Plains of Abraham and clamoured for the return of their beloved Nordiques, 15 years after the National Hockey League team left town because of financial woes and became the Colorado Avalanche.
But the rally wasn't just purely about hockey, even though giant screens showed many on-ice highlights from the team's 16 seasons in the NHL.
The possible return of the NHL to Quebec City has spilled over into the political arena and that was reflected by some of those in attendance. They included Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois and various Conservative MPs from Quebec.
Liberal MP Denis Coderre stood out as he wore the red jersey of the Montreal Canadiens—the Nordiques' bitter enemies who waged many a bloody battle with their provincial rivals over the years.
Peter Stastny, one of the team's most popular players, said he believes the Nordiques redux would be a roaring success.
"This is a paradise for hockey," said the Slovak, who was accompanied at the event by his brothers Anton and Marian, both of whom also played for the team.
"I spent 10 years here. I know what people are capable of here. They deserve an NHL team.
"They're proud. They have character. They're the best. Once the team is here, I have no doubt it will work out."
Others to receive rapturous applause included former coach Michel (Le tigre) Bergeron, who was introduced to the crowd as "Eye of the Tiger" belted out of the sound system.
"The images that will be sent all across Canada, all across America, are the living proof that the Nordiques are back," he told the cheering throng.
"We always loved the way you supported us and respected us."
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, one of the driving forces behind the push for the Nordiques' return, was thrilled with the size of Saturday's turnout, which he estimated at more than 50,000.
"People are happy, there's emotion in the air," Labeaume said.
"There's nostalgia. There's a mixture of all kinds of sentiments. There's hope. I can feel that."
Labeaume had a direct message for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"I have nothing left to say," said the mayor, who is also hoping to land the 2022 Winter Olympics.
"They just have to look around us (at the crowd). There's nothing left to say. And if they don't understand with that, it's not my problem any longer."
Bettman has been categoric, however: the NHL won't entertain the idea of returning to Quebec City unless a new arena is built.
And that's where many of the political games are being played.
The Quebec government has committed to funding about one-half of the $400-million arena, while Ottawa is being asked to pony up 45 per cent—or about $180 million.
The Conservatives have 11 seats in Quebec and holding on to them is considered key to achieving their coveted majority in a future election.
Most of the seats are in and around Quebec City.
But the Tories are in a delicate spot: they're squeezed between local constituents demanding the government fund an arena, while outside Quebec there have been many angry complaints about the idea.
A top cabinet minister stated a few weeks ago there will be no federal taxpayers' money to build a new NHL-calibre arena for Quebec City until private investors show up to inject some of their own cash into the project.
That clear message came from Transport Minister Chuck Strahl, who is responsible for infrastructure spending.
"It really has to be driven by the private sector and so far that hasn't happened," Strahl said.
Saturday's events are scheduled to end with an NHL exhibition game involving the Canadiens and the New York Islanders.
The company that hopes to move a team into a new arena—Quebecor Media Inc. (TSX:QBR)—ran live coverage of the rally for several hours on its television network.
A poll of 90 NHL players by the Hockey News suggests Quebec City might be their favourite destination for the return of a team—slightly ahead of potential rivals like Winnipeg and Las Vegas.