The Nordiques left Quebec after the 1994-1995 season.  They became the Colorado Avalanche the following season and broke the hearts of the people of Quebec City when they won the Stanley Cup that year.  Now, with talk of a new arena in Quebec City heating up, could the Nordiques actually return?

At first it would seem pretty unlikely.  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has gone on record as saying “we don’t want people building a building on our account expecting that there is going to be a franchise, because we’re not in a position to promise one right now.”

Bettman went on to say “we’re not planning on expanding, we’re not planning on relocation.”

Just watching how Bettman has tried his hardest to keep NHL teams in cities like Nashville and (especially) Phoenix shows that the commissioner is serious about leaving teams where they are.  Bettman seems determined to avoid the conditions that allowed teams to move from cities like Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford in the 1990s.  It’s a solid stance from the commissioner of the NHL.  It’s hard for a team to gain support when the threat of relocation looms.  The league is stronger with 30 stable franchises in good financial shape.

But is that feasible?

According to Forbes’ Business of Hockey 2010, 16 NHL teams lost money last season.  This includes franchises in so-called “traditional hockey markets” like Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Ottawa, Long Island, Buffalo and others.  Even teams on the rise like Washington and Tampa Bay struggled to make money.

Of course, the economy has not been great in many cities, so it’s expected that some teams would struggle.  However, if teams in these cities have difficulty, how are teams in Atlanta, Phoenix, Florida, Columbus, Nashville and other “non-traditional markets” expected to survive?

Looking at league attendance further illustrates this problem.  This season seven teams fill their arenas to less than 80% capacity on a regular basis.  Again, all of those teams are in the United States where a struggling economy – and not a lack of interest in hockey – could be the cause.  The fact that many of the teams with the lowest attendance are also the teams that are struggling this season should also be taken into the account.  Winning teams usually attract more fans than losing ones.

Should the NHL stick it out through the tough times in these cities with hopes of finally building a strong foundation in new markets?  Or should the league retreat back to Canada where the teams would likely be more profitable, at the risk of NHL becoming even more of a niche sport played in only certain areas of the continent?

The deciding factor may be television ratings.  There is good news all around on that front.  With the NHL’s current television deal with NBC and Versus set to expire and the possibility of both NBA and NFL lockouts looming, there are rumours of a bidding war for NHL television coverage.  A lucrative TV deal would be excellent for the NHL, greatly raise the profile of the league and help the bottom line.

This is a problem for small markets and Canadian cities hoping for teams.  The league is more marketable from a television standpoint with teams in Atlanta, Phoenix and Long Island than it is with teams in Quebec City, Winnipeg and Hamilton.  Though the NHLPA poll showed that the players would choose Quebec City over other Canadian locations, they’re not the ones making the decision.

Gary Bettman is and TV stations like NBC, Versus and others would rather have the league stay in big market American teams.

However, that doesn’t stop fans from dreaming of the day when games like this are aired on television once again: