Senators, Quebec City discuss joint bid to host 2023 World Juniors

The longtime home rink of the Ottawa Senators, now called the Canadian Tire Centre, is pictured in Ottawa on March 12, 2020. (CP/file)

Quebec City and the Ottawa Senators have discussed a joint bid to host the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship, which was stripped from Russia after that country's invasion of Ukraine, but talks of the NHL team playing neutral-site games at the city's Centre Vidéotron did not progress beyond the preliminary stage.

Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard said Wednesday that the Quebec government, the Senators and Quebecor are exploring the possibility of Ottawa and Quebec City entering a joint bid.

The IIHF previously expressed interest in having Canada act as the host site for the tournament, Sportsnet's Jeff Marek reported last weekend, though a specific city was not mentioned.

Hockey Canada is hosting the rescheduled iteration of the 2022 World Juniors after the tournament was postponed because of rising COVID-19 cases late last year. It will return to Edmonton, starting from the beginning and featuring the same players, regardless of if they've aged out or not.

“Are we have discussions with the Quebec government and Quebecor (the company that owns the Centre Vidéotron)? Yes, we have in the last couple of weeks, purely about the potential of hosting the World Junior Championship,” Anthony LeBlanc, the president of business operations for the Senators, told the Ottawa Sun. “We started having preliminary discussions over the last two weeks about what an appropriate sister city would be. We immediately thought Gatineau or Quebec City, and those are the discussions that happened.”

Girard also said Wednesday that the possibility of Quebec City hosting some Senators games was brought up during a January meeting he had with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

He said ``both sides'' had expressed an interest in the idea.

``But at this stage, it's preliminary,'' said Girard.

The comments came on the heels of a more expansive report by Denis Lessard of La Presse that said preliminary talks took place involving Quebec's provincial government, the National Hockey League and the Senators about the possibility of the team playing five NHL games at the Centre Vidéotron.

The discussions, Lessard reported, originated in a mid-January meeting between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Eric Girard, the finance minister of Quebec. When the province asked what it could do to show that Quebec City was a viable NHL market, Bettman raised the possibility of hosting a number of NHL games — though it is not known if the Senators were explicitly mentioned at that time — and the commissioner "seemed convinced" it could be done "without too many obstacles," La Presse's reporting said.

Talks between the league and the province were never aimed at a shared-custody arrangement between Ottawa and Quebec or relocating the Senators out of Canada's capital, Lessard reported, and instead focused solely on the proposal of hosting five games at the Centre Vidéotron.

The Centre Vidéotron, which is the seventh-largest indoor arena in Canada and seats over 18,000, is the home of the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL and has been seen by the province and the city as a potential home for its long-desired return to the NHL stage.

Quebec has been without a team since 1995, when the Nordiques relocated to Colorado and became the Avalanche. The franchise went on to win a Stanley Cup in its first season in Denver.

A grassroots movement to rally support for the city to have a team again began in the late 2000s. In the intervening years, the NHL has expanded to Las Vegas and Seattle, but has never shown more than tepid interest in returning to Quebec.

The province, though, has gone undeterred. Premier Francois Legault reopened the door to dialogue with the league in November and said Girard had been working on the project since the previous summer. The meetings between the finance minister and the NHL commissioner in January ended with Bettman saying the league was "not aware of any opportunity" that could satisfy the province's interest at the time.

Even the long-shot possibility of the Senators playing anywhere, for any number of games, other than Ottawa comes at an especially sensitive time for the franchise. Eugene Melnyk, the team's owner for nearly the last two decades, died on Monday at the age of 62. How the organization's ownership picture will unfold is unclear.

Although he didn't want to get into specifics, Bettman told reporters on Monday he'd be discussing next steps with Melnyk's daughters, Anna and Olivia, as well as the executor of Melnyk's estate. Bettman said an ownership structure has been in place and anticipated the franchise to continue operating as it has.

According to La Presse, the preliminary talks were put on hold in the wake of Melnyk's passing.

"Has Quebecor expressed interest to host neutral site games? Absolutely, they’ve made that very clear," LeBlanc told the Sun. "But we’ve told them that’s interesting, but that’s as far as it’s gone."

-- With files from The Canadian Press

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