MONTREAL — The Quebec government's decision to dole out up to $7 million for a pair of 2024 NHL pre-season games continued to cause a stir on Wednesday after reports the Montreal Canadiens were prepared to play in the provincial capital for free.
On Tuesday, the Quebec government announced it is spending between $5 million and $7 million to have the Los Angeles Kings spend the final part of their 2024 training camp in Quebec City, including two pre-season games at the Videotron Centre.
The subsidy drew immediate criticism from opposition parties and labour unions, who are in difficult negotiations over new collective agreements and are preparing for widespread strikes next week. And that was before La Presse reported that the Canadiens had been prepared to play a pre-season game in the provincial capital next fall without any subsidy.
In an email Wednesday, a Canadiens official confirmed that the La Presse report was correct. The newspaper reported the Canadiens would have rented out the Videotron Centre and handled the promotion of the game themselves, but were rebuffed by Gestev, the Quebecor subsidiary that manages the Videotron Centre.
Radio-Canada reported Tuesday that Quebecor already had an agreement with the Kings by the time the Canadiens made their pitch. A spokeswoman for Gestev did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Finance Minister Eric Girard described the event Tuesday as a celebration of hockey and defended the subsidy as being in line with what the government provides for other cultural and sporting events.
According to a Quebecor release, the provincial government's subsidy will "cover expenses in excess of the revenue generated by the event." A spokesperson for Girard referred questions about the type of expenses to Gestev.
The Kings, who will train in Quebec City from Oct. 2-6, will face the Boston Bruins in their first pre-season game on Oct. 3 before taking on the Florida Panthers two days later. They will also hold some open practices over the four days.
According to the Kings, the dates in Quebec City coincide with a final phase of renovations at the their home rink, Crypto.com Arena, so they were in need of a second home.
Girard has said the event will showcase Quebec City's arena, 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.
Quebec City has attempted to lure a National Hockey League team back to the market since then, but has been unsuccessful. Currently, the building is home to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The last time Videotron Centre hosted an NHL pre-season game was six years ago, Sept. 20, 2018, when the Canadiens faced off against the Washington Capitals.
Opposition Liberal interim leader Marc Tanguay called the Coalition Avenir Québec government "disconnected" and "incoherent" in a statement on Wednesday.
"The CAQ government has lost all sense of priorities," Tanguay said, noting Girard was unable to provide a dollar amount for the possible economic benefits of the event.
Éric Duhaime, leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec, called on the government to cancel the subsidy and was critical of the timing, given labour strife and Quebecers' struggles with affordability issues.
"It's insulting to the teacher who is told that the government does not have a penny more for their salary increase, but it has millions for a multimillionaire American professional hockey team to train at the Videotron Centre," he said in a statement.
While it's not uncommon for pre-season games to be held in different markets, spending $7 million in public funds to entice Los Angeles if Montreal was willing to come at no cost raises eyebrows, said Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
"The optics are definitely bad, but even if we were in a period of low inflation and large government budget surpluses and a healthy economy, it would still be very questionable," Lander said.
While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in Montreal in January the league "was not in an expansion mode," Lander wondered why the government didn't look at a team that could potentially move to the market — even though he thinks a return remains a long-shot.
"If you're going to have somebody come to Quebec City, then you would think that it would be a team that is ripe for relocation. say like the Arizona Coyotes that are playing in a university hockey arena," Lander said.
The Quebec Nordiques, the city's former NHL team, relocated to Denver in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2023.
— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press