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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reacts during a news conference announcing Ottawa will host the 2012 NHL All-Star game in Ottawa September 15, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CHRIS WATTIE)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reacts during a news conference announcing Ottawa will host the 2012 NHL All-Star game in Ottawa September 15, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CHRIS WATTIE)

Roy MacGregor

Why hockey and politics make strange bedfellows Add to ...

As logos went, it couldn't have been more appropriate.



A puck with the Peace Tower rising out of it - Canada's national game and the Parliament of Canada entwined.



The occasion was confirmation of a month-long rumour that the NHL was awarding the 2012 all-star game to Ottawa, but the greater news interest concerned another Canadian city and the possibility of the NHL one day restoring a second franchise to the Province of Quebec.

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This, of course, is Canada, a nation of such periodic insignificance that the political crisis of the passing season centred around whether or not to have a long- or short-form census.



Nothing, but nothing, jolts the silly meter higher than a minority government situation in which the polls may eventually have to resort to a shootout to decide matters.



When a single seat could conceivably mean the difference between Government and Opposition, the absurdities at times defy credulity. Better, the government in power decides, to double up on an irrational G8 (Muskoka) and G20 (Toronto) gathering if the end result is not just a billion dollars spent but a guaranteed seat in the riding that would be most put out if the two meetings had been sensibly folded into one.



The G8/G20 farce, however, seems almost common sense compared to the political intrigues concerning a hockey rink that hasn't even been built for a team that doesn't exist.

Fifteen years ago, the Quebec Nordiques, perhaps as enjoyable a team as ever was watched, left the wilting Canadian dollar for Colorado and a Stanley Cup parade that otherwise would have travelled down Grande Allée to Rue Ste-Louis.



Ever since, hockey in Quebec City has been as much a political issue as a sports one. When the NHL hinted that it might be persuaded - Canadian dollar high, U.S. expansion sputtering - to return in some form to Quebec, the unpopular provincial government, sensing votes, was quick to offer to pay 45 per cent of the cost of a necessary new rink and call on the federal government to join in. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for once letting the hockey fan inside trump the political operative, was vague enough in his response that it seemed, to many, that he favoured such an un-Canadian (but very American) scheme to build private-enterprise sports facilities out of taxpayers' money. Eight of his precious Quebec MPs immediately leapt into Nordiques sweaters and onto a bandwagon that hadn't truly been cleared to go.



And at that moment, the re-establishment of the Quebec Nordiques became a national issue - not a regional one, not a sports one. But a pure political one.



One Quebec Tory, Maxime Bernier, spoke out against the folly of federal government funding for a private enterprise that is today, under the current NHL arrangements, virtually a licence to print money in hockey-mad Canada. Loyal Tories out West - the very people who first created Stephen Harper and then put the re-born Conservatives into power - wondered how it could be that none of their sports facilities had ever been helped out, nor did there seem any offers in line for, say, that new, needed hockey rink in Edmonton, that new football field in Regina ... or that needed in Winnipeg if the year runs out on the financially crushed Phoenix Coyotes and the league follows through with its intention to turn to an owner who could them move the team - with luck returning the Jets to their proper home.



All of this has, to no surprise, left politicians scrambling. What one might call clarification another sees as backtracking. What the voter sees is simple opportunism.



As for the NHL, it is wise enough to stay off such thin ice.



"I make it a point not to mix sports and politics," commissioner Gary Bettman said following the all-star game announcement.



"If the right circumstances presented themselves," he added, "we would like to find a way to go back to Quebec City."



However, he was quick to point out, in no way would the league ever be "presumptuous enough to suggest" how it might be done. As far as demands go, the NHL has but one: "For us to even contemplate the possibility of going back there's going to have to be a certainty that there would be a new arena."



"It's not a simple question," added Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, "and there's no simple answer to it."



But how the politicians wish there were.



And so the talk turned to all the benefits of the all-star game coming to Ottawa - 7,000 hotel rooms, broadcast to 150 countries, a $30-million economic boom - with all judiciously avoiding any further talk of Quebec City.



Where the true cost - political as well as financial - has yet to be worked out.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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