A proposal to build a $400-million, publicly financed hockey arena in Quebec City is expected to take a major step forward Tuesday, leaving Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government stuck between its political ambitions in the province and its cost-cutting mandate.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest is scheduled to play host to Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, along with a key business leader exploring the arena's viability, in his office Tuesday. They are set to discuss a recently completed but unreleased feasibility study on the arena - a locally popular project that's a linchpin for the city's bids for both the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and a National Hockey League franchise.
The meeting suggests the province may support the project. Mr. Harper, an avid hockey fan, also said last week he hopes NHL hockey does return to the city - something that won't happen without a new rink.
With a possible federal election looming, the Conservatives can't afford to alienate Quebec voters, even as Ottawa faces soaring deficits, observers say. Quebec is widely considered the key to a Conservative majority, and the arena is supported by the federal Liberals and Bloc Québécois.
The politically charged project, as such, may push forward with federal money despite having no guarantee of either the Olympics or the NHL.
"This is all politics. There is nothing but politics in this," said Michael Behiels, a history professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Canadian and Québécois politics. "That's prime federalist Conservative territory. Harper has everything to gain politically by opening up the federal coffers to Quebec City and building an arena there."
Mr. Labeaume, the mayor, is a long-time backer of the arena, which would include a moat and be made of wood to reflect the city's heritage. The city has pledged $50-million.
The federal Liberals have supported such a project for a year, MP Marc Garneau said, saying Mr. Harper made his comments about the NHL because "obviously they have a base in the Quebec City area and they felt the need to do something about it."
Quebec's last NHL team, the Nordiques, moved to Colorado 15 years ago. With a salary cap and a higher Canadian dollar, supporters say a team would now be viable, though Quebec City would be one of the league's smallest markets and a team would struggle to break even.
If an arena were approved, the city must still find a generous owner and a franchise, said Norm O'Reilly, a professor of sports business at the University of Ottawa. Other cities are also competing for a franchise, including Winnipeg and Kansas City, which already have arenas.
One possibility for ownership may be Quebecor Inc., which was a bidder for the Montreal Canadiens and whose CEO, Pierre Karl Péladeau, is a rumoured supporter of the Quebec City arena project, Prof. O'Reilly said.
"All the pieces are in play, except the ownership question, and that's a big one," he said.
"The commissioner doesn't want failed franchises, and a relocation in their view is a failed franchise," Prof. O'Reilly said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has fought the return of franchises to Canada, but said earlier this year that "with the right ownership group, with a new arena ... I believe a team can be well-supported in [Quebec City]"
Like hopes of an NHL franchise, there are no guarantees an Olympic bid would be successful if a new arena were built. Two feasibility studies related to other facilities, such as a ski hill, required for a bid are expected to be released later this year.
Given the uncertainty, "this would be a tremendous coup for Quebec City, but it would also be the biggest federal government boondoggle going," Prof. Behiels said.
"If they can come up with this and keep hopes alive there in that region for an NHL team, that would be a great coup for Harper. Whether or not it brings a team is another matter."
Support for the arena is heavy in Quebec. A demonstration is being organized on the Plains of Abraham next month by a local group of supporters, who have invited former Nordiques stars to attend.
Karine Sauvé, a spokeswoman for Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, cited federal funding for Vancouver Olympics infrastructure projects in justifying her party's support.
"If other cities in Canada were able to get funding, then why not Quebec City?" she said. However, Vancouver's bid for the Games included $470-million in capital funding split equally between the province and federal government - but it was contingent on the city actually receiving the Games. (NHL arenas in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver were built with private money. A proposed arena in Edmonton, home of the NHL's Oilers, has not yet received public money.)
However, unlike in Quebec, the Conservatives face little political opposition in cities such as Edmonton. As one Alberta MP said Monday, of the 27 Conservative MPs in Alberta, "27 of them are hockey fans" and he "wouldn't have much of a problem defending" a Quebec arena to his constituents.
The Harper government has given mixed messages on the project. Treasury Board President Stockwell Day said recently the government wouldn't offer up cash, before clarifying and saying it wouldn't fund a team. Calls for comment Monday from the Harper government were not returned.