The Harper government is threatening to hold back promised funding for an arena north of Montreal, fearing it will be used by a professional hockey team and open the door to a wave of new demands for sports funding across the country.
Ottawa signed on in 2009 to a plan to build a 7,000-seat arena in Laval, Que., offering to pony up $15-million of the total $100-million tab. The money came from the federal government's multi-billion-dollar stimulus program, but there was no sense at the time that the arena would become the home of a specific professional hockey team.
However, there are growing rumours that the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League – the farm team of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens – are planning to move into the Laval arena when it will be built.
Ottawa is now warning that it will pull the plug on the project unless if obtains guarantees that the arena will not be used by an AHL or a major-junior hockey team. Otherwise, the government fears that it will be hit with a new round of lobbying for other sports infrastructure projects in cities like Quebec City, Edmonton and Regina.
"If we allow a breach in our policy, we're toast," a federal official said.
Transport Minister Denis Lebel is making it clear in a round of interviews on Friday that the federal government will not make any exceptions, adding that the Laval project is late and will need to be resubmitted for approval.
"The funding of infrastructures designed for professional or junior-major hockey is first and foremost a responsibility of the private sector, and we will not be a partner in those projects," Mr. Lebel said.
The matter has fuelled the rivalry between the cities of Montreal and Quebec City, which received no federal money for a proposed $400-million hockey arena that is designed to welcome an NHL team in the future. There was an outcry in Quebec City this week as the rumour of the Bulldogs heading to Laval took steam, fuelling an outcry over the fact that Ottawa is still refusing to fund a new home for the Nordiques.
Liberal MP Denis Coderre said the Harper government is entangled in the numerous contradictions in its policy on funding hockey arenas.
"They were caught with their pants down and now they are left scrambling," he said.