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Quebec Tory MPs wear Nordiques jerseys during a meeting Wednesday. They support construction of a new arena.

YAN DOUBLET / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Quebec Tory MPs wear Nordiques jerseys during a meeting Wednesday. They support construction of a new arena.

WILL the Quebec Nordiques come back to Canada before the Winnipeg Jets?

That's the signal coming out of La Belle Province this week as the Quebec government unveiled a plan to build a $400-million arena in Quebec City.

The kicker? Its construction depends on the federal government contributing $170 million.

The Harper government, like the Liberal one before it, has so far snubbed calls to help pay for professional sports facilities in other cities across Canada. But some observers say an exception could be made in vote-rich Quebec as the Tories seek a majority government.

The most visible sign of federal Conservative support for the project was in Quebec City where members of the party's Quebec caucus wore vintage Nordiques sweaters for the media on Wednesday. Most of the province's 11 Conservative MPs have seats in and around Quebec City, as well as eastern parts of the province.

The fear is that if the Conservatives cave in to that pressure and help build a new Colisée, it could jeopardize Winnipeg's chances of scoring an NHL franchise. The Quebec Nordiques left for Colorado in 1995 and the Winnipeg Jets headed to Phoenix at the end of the 1996 season.

True North Sports & Entertainment chairman and Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman declined to comment.

True North spokesman Scott Brown said, "We don't really have anything to do with that process or what's going on there, so it doesn't serve us any great benefit to make a comment on this one way or the other."

But David Asper wasn't so shy. Asper's Creswin development company is behind the construction of a football stadium at the University of Manitoba, a project made possible because of a $90-million loan from the Manitoba government.

"It is beyond disturbing that the federal government would even consider making such a massive contribution to a professional sports facility in Eastern Canada when they turned Manitoba down flat on our new community-owned stadium because part of its usage included the Winnipeg Blue Bombers," Asper said in an email. "If the federal government proceeds with Quebec City it's only fair that Manitoba receive its fair share and that's what our elected officials should be fighting for."

On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper flung the doors open to the possibility of federal funding for professional sports stadiums across the country, saying if his government sends money to Quebec City it will do the same for others.

Harper stressed that no financing would go directly to pro-sports franchises, but arenas and stadiums are another matter.

"In terms of financing major sports facilities, there are demands here, there are demands in Quebec City, I am aware of demands elsewhere," he said.

"In terms of financing these things going forward, we're going to have to respect the precedents we have had in the past and be sure any treatment we're prepared to make to one city we're prepared to make to all."

But others say Harper will never sign a big cheque for Quebec City.

"It's far more money than any other province would ask for," University of Manitoba political scientist Jared Wesley said. "My sense is that it's not a real vote-getter. They'd lose votes in other parts of the country."

Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said Ottawa didn't co-fund arena projects in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Edmonton, Hamilton and Calgary are also looking to build or upgrade hockey rinks.

"Why would the federal government break its policy for Quebec City?" Craig said.

When the $133.5-million MTS Centre was built several years ago, Ottawa only contributed $12 million under the Canada-Manitoba Infrastructure Program.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has said his government will pay 45 per cent of the new arena's cost, but without Ottawa -- or a private partner -- the project is likely to die.

Wesley said it appears Charest is setting up the federal Tories to be the villain should Ottawa refuse to pony up the cash. "They know they can't afford it," he said. "The optics are not good."

A report recommends building the arena to replace the Colisée. But the building would run a deficit unless the NHL returned.

 

-- With files from the wire services

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca