Monday, 11 July 2016

May I Suggest "Titan"?

Yesterday was a rumor of a potential move as the Ottawa Senators contemplate the future of their young players in Binghamton. Today, the Montreal Canadiens confirmed what was a poorly-kept secret in AHL circles. The Canadiens have made the bold move of moving a team they had relocated just a year ago to a brand-new city as the St. John's IceCaps are on the move once again. The former Hamilton Bulldogs picked up in St. John's after being relocated following the original IceCaps franchise being moved to Manitoba and becoming the Moose last season. In 2017, they'll move again as the Canadiens announced their intentions to move the squad to Laval, Quebec for the 2017-18 season!

As I pointed out yesterday, the annual moves done in the AHL are starting to get ridiculous. The move to Laval is a money-saving move, it seems, as the costs of running the franchise in St. John's, Newfoundland was proving to be a taller task for the Canadiens. Thanks to the building of the brand-new Place Bell which will seat 10,000 fans and house two additional, smaller ice rinks for practice and public use, Laval has become the ideal place for the IceCaps to land.

Until, of course, they're named something else. Before that happens, though, this move has been an expensive project in attracting a professional hockey franchise for the city and taxpayers of Laval.

Let's be honest: this hasn't been all rainbows and lollipops. First, the site of the new arena moved thanks to unstable soil. Oh, and the soil needed to be decontaminated prior to securing the site, so let's just say that the idea of this arena got off to a rocky start when it was announced in October 2012 that the arena site would be relocated to the vacant lot near Montmorency metro station instead.

Despite that small setback, ground was broken on the new arena and construction got underway. Everyone seemed happy with the arena's estimated cost of $92.6 million and the total project at $120 million with the city of Laval contributing $42 million, the Quebec provincial government adding $46 million, and private investment kicking in the last $32 million to cover all costs. "Private investment" includes Canadiens owner Geoff Molson.

As an aside, how is private investment's contribution the smallest of the three contributors? I've argued this before, but why are taxpayers in Quebec contributing some $88 million to a project they may never get to experience? That seems idiotic at best, but I digress.

Everything in Laval seemed to be going pretty swimmingly until scandal struck. Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and 36 others were arrested and charged with "gangsterism" in an alleged kickbacks-for-contracts scheme - the same mayor who handed out contracts for the new arena being built. Do you get a sense of what may be coming? Because we haven't even experienced pain yet.

When auditors looked into the contracts for the arena deal in December 2012 - two months after ground broke on the project - the cost had already ballooned to $150 million! That left Laval taxpayers on the hook for some "$73 million – more than double the first estimate of $30 million"! Putting that in perspective, the Laval taxpayers were now on the hook for nearly the same amount as the original estimate. Clearly, something was way off in the original estimate received by Vaillancourt.

Oh, we're not done. No, the pain continued into March 2014 when auditors announced that the original plans for Place Bell had not included any parking! Instead, an added $20 million was tacked onto the $152 million price tag, pushing the costs thanks to overruns and errors up to $200 million! What once seemed like sensible price on a building was now costing Quebec and Laval taxpayers some $100 million more than the original price tag!

I need to ask why private investors - aka Geoff Molson - haven't coughed up any additional money, but I'm getting off-topic once again.

In what amounted to Laval mayor Marc Demers blaming the Vaillancourt administration for the lack of transparency into the arena costs, he made several shocking statements that seem like the previous administration had no clue what they were doing. CBC reported,

[Demers] said Vaillancourt's plan neglected to take into consideration the creation or cost of parking ($20 million) and the cost of making space for businesses inside the arena ($8 million).

Demers said Vaillancourt also lowballed the cost of the building itself ($130 million, up $10 million from the previous announcement) and the cost of specialized equipment ($42 million, up $8 million from the original estimate).
If what Demers said is true, it's fairly clear that Vaillancourt had no idea what he was doing. The ballooning costs for this arena - now more than double the original estimate - are ridiculous, and it shouldn't be up to the public to bail out the terrible deals made by politicians.

Everything seems to be falling into place since the revisions to the plans and costs, and the Canadiens' AHL affiliate will move into the soon-to-be-finished arena next summer. Laval is a city of approximately 400,000 people, and there will be a push to try and sell out the 10,000-seat arena once it's ready. So it needs to be asked: are there enough AHL fans in Laval to support the team? More importantly, will Montreal fans make the 30-minute drive to see the baby Habs play in Laval?

Fans in Montreal seem to be feast-or-famine towards hockey. They love the Canadiens, but have twice watched QMJHL teams leave for greener pastures - the Montreal Juniors for Blainville-Boisbriand in 2011 and the Montreal Rocket to Prince Edward Island in 2003. Neither of those teams lasted longer than four seasons in Montreal.

Laval, on the other hand, has had its share of QMJHL teams leave the city as well. The Laval Titan lasted for 13 seasons before they left town for Acadie-Bathurst in New Brunswick in 1998. Prior to that, the Laval Voisins - a team that boasted the exploits of Mario Lemieux - were the previous name of the Titan, but they only lasted six years in Laval before new ownership took control. Laval has had a vast number of NHL players pass through the city as members of either the Voisins or Titan, but they haven't had any hockey in the city since 1998.

The soon-to-be-ex-IceCaps franchise will have to sell itself to the city of Laval in a big way. The arena they are going to call home has been a financial disaster to say the least, and they are getting a team that finished twelve points shy of a playoff spot with a 32-33-8-3 record. There aren't a pile of marketable stars outside of Charles Hudon and Sven Andrighetto, so they'll need to hit the ground next summer and get the word of mouth and good community appearances to help bolster season ticket sales. Otherwise, this move might fall flat on its face if they don't capture the community quickly.

While today's announcement of the move included a piece about how there will be a "name the team" contest next summer, might I suggest the name "Titan". No, it's not to honour the previous QMJHL team that once called Laval home. It would be for the more suitable titanic cost of the arena as a reminder to taxpayers regarding how much money they poured into this AHL venture.

You paid a steep price for the team, Laval. You better come out and support it now.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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