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'Hockey fever' trumps social spending in Quebec?

Conservative MPs wear Nordiques jerseys during a caucus meeting in Quebec City on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010.


As usual in Quebec, summer is not even officially over and all anyone can talk about is hockey. Quebec City residents still mourning the departure of their beloved Nordiques had reason to be hopeful last week after the release of a feasibility study on a new NHL-calibre arena in the provincial capital. The report contended that a new arena would be profitable if it was built with public funds. After the release of the report, Premier Jean Charest said the provincial government would contribute up to 45 per cent of construction costs if the federal government were also willing to pitch in.

On Wednesday, a group of Quebec Conservative MPs showed their support for the project by wearing vintage Nordiques jerseys and a spokesperson for Transport Minister Chuck Stahl said the government was " very interested" in the possibility of funding a new hockey arena. In the francophone media, pundits were divided on whether or not to spend public money to resurrect the Nordiques.

Some commentators were enthusiastic about the idea. In a post to his blogue at l'Actualité, Jean-Francois Lisée said the return of a professional hockey team to Quebec City would strengthen the Quebecois identity. He contended that, "the departure of the Nordiques signified the decline of the French language in hockey" and that the return of professional hockey to the provincial capital should be regarded as " a common good" for all Quebecers.

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La Presse's Stéphane Laporte was another cheerleader for the hypothetical hockey team. He opined that commentators in the rest of Canada who questioned the use of federal funds for the new arena were just "jealous" of Quebec. "For years our friends in English Canada have been asking: What does Quebec want? Well, now you know: Quebec wants an arena. It could be worse; Quebec could want a country. But right now Quebec just wants an arena, for playing hockey and watching concerts. So chill out," he quipped.

While Mr. Lisée and Mr. Laporte rallied behind the idea of new NHL team in Quebec, several other pundits remained skeptical. Some questioned the conclusions of the feasibility study. In his Wednesday column in Le Soleil, François Bourque worried that the report had "exaggerated" the potential economic gains of a new arena. "What hit me the most, was not the report's conclusions, but its silences," he wrote, "It said almost nothing about the state of the Quebec economy; there was no market study; nothing about the existing arena, … nothing on how a new arena and an eventual NHL team would impact other economic activities in the city."

La Presse's Alain Dubuc echoed Mr. Bourque's concerns, declaring the study "insufferable." He questioned the study's " business model," which he opined was not adequate to "serve as a justification for a major project or to convince governments to spend hundreds of millions of dollars."

On Friday in Le Soleil, Jean-Simon Gagné opined that only "hockey fever" could explain how many of the strongest voices in favour of using public funds to build a new arena "are the same ones who denounce all government intervention" on other issues. "If I understand correctly," he wrote, "We want the government to privatize healthcare, cut social programs… cut cultural funding, and then invest in hockey."

After several days of criticism in the francophone media and in the rest of Canada, the Conservatives were suddenly much less open to the idea of committing federal funds to the construction of the arena. During a speech to Conservative supporters in Quebec City Monday night, Mr. Harper declared, "professional sports are first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector." His statement has been widely interpreted as an indication that his government does not intend to match the provincial government's commitment to the project.

Column of the week

Yves Boisvert tells the cautionary tale of the publicly funded and highly unprofitable New York Giants stadium in Meadowlands, New Jersey that has since been bulldozed and turned into a parking lot. Mr. Boisvert opined that Quebeckers should beware of investing in an arena that can only be profitable if the government pays for its construction. "By the same calculation," he wrote, "I can afford to live in a $10-million house, as long as someone else builds it."

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