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\Premier Jean Charest, right, shakes hands with Mayor Regis Labeaume on Feb. 10, 2011 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Thursday's announcement by Jean Charest and Mayor Régis Labeaume that they will go it alone on a hockey, er multipurpose arena in Quebec City is a stroke of brilliance.

Having gauged the reaction in the rest of Canada, it was abundantly clear to both gentlemen that Ottawa would not be funding the arena at this time. Rather than waiting on Stephen Harper - or, potentially, his replacement after the next election - Messrs. Charest and Labeaume decided to focus on the real key to this deal - the return of NHL hockey to Quebec City.

For all their talk about a multi-purpose arena, both Charest and Labeaume understand that the project won't work financially if it ends up hosting international pee-wee hockey tourneys and Elton John revival concerts. True, the arena may not work even if it does, but the odds are a lot better. Not to speak of the fact that the return of NHL hockey is the element of the deal that most excites Quebeckers. Which is not an insignificant consideration when you're talking about two politicians - one of whom is exceptionally unpopular at this time.

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Here's a prediction: Before you can say Peter Stastny, Régis Labeaume will be on a plane to New York knocking on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's door. And don't be shocked if Jean Charest flies the same skies, either alone or together with his municipal sidekick.

If Mr. Bettman is even mildly encouraging about the prospect for an NHL franchise - which would be uncharacteristic of the man - Messrs. Charest and Labeaume will be able to take the next steps.

Specifically, they'll be able to start the bidding war between Pierre Karl Péladeau, Labatt's and perhaps others for the naming rights of the arena. And, at the same time, they will smartly return the ball to Ottawa's court, where Stephen Harper may yet be confronted with a difficult political decision before the next election.

For all the talk about interest rates and millions yesterday, neither Charest nor Labeaume actually spent a nickel. Mr. Bettman, as well as their "partners" in the arena enterprise, are about to see why, in federal-provincial circles, the Quebecois nation has the reputation of being the shrewdest negotiators in Canada.

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