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The heart and soul of Newfoundland politics is in for repair - and it's not in his home province or even in Canada, for that matter.

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams is scheduled for heart surgery in the United States, a move that throws into question his province's and his nation's health-care system.

A source confirmed to The Globe and Mail late yesterday that Mr. Williams has left St. John's for an undisclosed destination in the U.S. to have heart surgery later in the week.

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The 59-year-old Conservative left yesterday morning, spokesperson Elizabeth Matthews said, without disclosing his location. While some of his critics were tight-lipped last night, the online public questioned his exodus - why the care he needed was not available in Canada, or whether he preferred treatment in the U.S.

His departure for a U.S. hospital is being met with both sympathy and anger as few details have emerged.

The severity of Mr. Williams' condition is not publicly known, however he was reportedly not overly concerned about his health, as he told close friends his greatest regret was the possibility of missing his Tuesday night hockey outings.

The remaining details are expected to be revealed at a news conference today by Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

At risk is the already tarnished image of the province's health-care system, which has suffered in recent years.

In October 2008, Mr. Williams apologized for a string of breast cancer test mix-ups. And though he demoted health minister Ross Wiseman last July, he also defended his record, saying there was no other member of his government he'd have rather had lead the portfolio at the time.

The current Minister of Health and Community Services, Jerome Kennedy, declined an interview request last night.

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Even Mr. Williams' harshest critics reserved judgment and comments on the matter until more details are revealed, citing the sensitive nature of health troubles.

Newfoundland's Liberal Opposition Leader Yvonne Jones declined to respond to the news, but said she will have something to say this morning after Ms. Dunderdale's public comment on behalf of Mr. Williams.

The medical community was just as reserved.

"It's hard to comment on something that's a personal health issue," said Robert Bell, chief executive officer of University Health Network, one of Canada's largest groups of hospitals.

However, he added, there could be good reason for Mr. Williams to have the operation in the United States if he has a complex heart condition that requires special expertise.

Rob Ritter, chief executive officer of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, was also conservative in his comments.

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"I don't know if it's something that can be done in Newfoundland or can be done in Canada," he said.

Even Stephen Harper, known for his battles with the Premier, had only positive words for him last night.

"On behalf of the Prime Minister of Canada, we wish Premier Williams good health and a quick recovery," wrote Mr. Harper's spokesperson Dimitri Soudas in an e-mail.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq declined comment without giving a reason and the federal Liberal party withheld their words, saying there was not enough information to go on.

As far as missing his hockey games goes, Mr. Williams is said to be as driven and competitive on the ice as he has proven to be in politics since the leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives first rose to national attention with a stunning victory in the fall 2003 election.

Since then, Mr. Williams - a Rhodes scholar and wealthy lawyer who made millions in cable television - has won three provincial elections and his popularity with the electorate of Newfoundland and Labrador, always high, has been said lately to ride at the 80 per cent mark.

One survey named him, by far, the most popular premier in Canada.

His latest battle - before the unsuspected heart problems - was over New Brunswick's plans to sell off its provincial energy provider to Hydro Quebec, an act that Mr. Williams claimed would threaten the energy sovereignty of the entire East Coast.

With reports from Steven Chase and Karen Howlett

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