Organizers sold 20,000 blue plastic shovels in the lead-up to Monday's event, to give every citizen who wanted one the chance — symbolically, at least — to help break the ground for the new arena.
Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume, who brought on board media giant Québecor to manage the future multi-use arena, said it never would have reached this stage without the support and enthusiasm of so many residents.
Crowd boos PQ's Marois
Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest was among the first dignitaries to fling a shovelful of sand into the bucket of a backhoe parked at the site.
Charest, whose government committed $200M to the project, got a rousing round of applause from the crowd.
Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, also present for the event, walked through the crowd shaking hands and signing shovels, amid loud booing.
"Please, please," Labeaume said sternly, reminding the crowd of the political risks Marois took in June 2011 by supporting Bill 204, a private member's bill to protect Quebec City from any potential lawsuit against the deal granting Quebecor control over the arena.
Four members of the PQ caucus resigned over her support for the legislation and her failure to consult the caucus on the matter.
Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the CEO of the Québecor empire, was also present at the groundbreaking. His company gets naming rights to the arena and will help pay for operating costs — an amount to be determined, depending on whether an NHL team ever moves in.
Fans line up to meet Stastny brothers
But the stars of the event were Peter Stastny and other four former players for the Quebec Nordiques, including Stasny's brother Marian.
Hockey lovers clamoured for autographs from the beloved Stasny brothers, who along with a third brother Anton defected from the former Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s to play for the team.
"Hopefully with a bit of luck, Quebec will be back and maybe the Nordiques will be back — or whatever the name of the franchise will be," said the elder Stastny, now a member of the European Parliament.
"You know, I will be one of the happiest dudes," he quipped.
The arena project has long been synonymous with Quebec City's desire to get back the Nordiques' hockey team.
The team became the Colorado Avalanche after the 1995 season.