One sure way for the Conservatives to score in Quebec

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The stars might be aligning for the Conservatives to get back in business in Quebec, or at least in the part of the province where their vote is very efficient. That would be Quebec City and points east, a region where they stand to gain even more seats if they do one big thing.

The Conservatives hold nine of their 11 Quebec seats in the 418 region of eastern Quebec that includes the Saguenay, North Shore, and South Shore from just east of the provincial capital all the way to the Gaspe coast.

There are another eight ridings in the region, seven held by the Bloc Quebecois and one by independent MP Andre Arthur, who usually votes with the Conservatives. And as the Liberals are not competitive anywhere in the region, virtually all of those seats would be in play if the Conservatives did that one big thing.

And that would be a commitment to match the Quebec government's pledge of $175 million to build an NHLcalibre hockey arena in Quebec City. Throw in another $50 million promised by the city and that would probably leave another $100 million in costs that would be covered by selling naming rights to an arena. The move would buttress both Quebec City's bid for the 2022 winter Olympics and, more immediately, for an NHL franchise and the return of the Nordiques.

"That would be a game changer," acknowledges a senior Conservative strategist in Ottawa. "Let's put it this way. We'd get a lot more out of that than promising Quebec its own seat at UNESCO."

They sure would. And for a government that now sits at 144 seats, 11 seats short of a majority in a 308-seat House, it's something to consider. It would virtually assure the Conservatives of retaining all of their nine seats in 418, and make all the others very competitive. The regional media would see to it, primarily Le Soleil and Le Journal de Quebec, not to mention the TVA network and LCN news channel. Those last three media franchises are owned by Quebecor, whose CEO, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, is driving the Nordiques bid, partly as a convergence play.

Here's how the stars are aligning, first on the Olympics and then on the NHL.

The International Olympic Committee seldom awards a winter or summer games to the same continent in the same decade. Thus, Salt Lake City in 2002, and Vancouver in 2010. By the time of the 2022 award, it might be North America's turn again.

Quebec City has most of the right things going for it, including snow in February, and being on North American time for television. The Quebec bid is strongly backed by the Canadian Olympic Committee and its new president, Marcel Aubut, who was president of the Nordiques before the team left for Denver. What Quebec City doesn't have for the moment is an arena suitable for an Olympic hockey tournament.

Giving their support for an Olympic bid would give the feds cover against the argument that what Ottawa was doing for one candidate NHL city it should do for others: Ottawa just finished spending $1 billion on the Vancouver Games, couldn't it put $175 million up front for Quebec's bid?

As for other Canadian cities, there's really only one currently in contention for an NHL franchise -Winnipeg. And Winnipeg has two big things already going for it -the brand new 15,000-seat MTS Centre, and a consortium led by David Thomson of the Thomson Reuters empire. In other words, Winnipeg already has a building, and enough private capital to back its bid.

Moreover, both Quebec City and Winnipeg, by all accounts, have the support of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has acknowledged that while they are small markets, both are good hockey towns.

In the NHL the commissioner is an extremely powerful figure, and his support amounts to a virtual stamp of approval from the governors. Certainly no city will win an NHL franchise over his objections, as BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie discovered when he tried to buy the insolvent Phoenix franchise with the goal of moving it to Hamilton, which would have broken the territorial rights of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.

Neither Quebec nor Winnipeg cares much whether it gets an expansion club or a franchise relocated from the southern or western U.S., as long as it gets a team.

For Stephen Harper, the politics of supporting the Quebec bid, even under cover of the Olympics, is not without peril. But it must also be tempting, and not just in his capacity as someone who loves the game so much he's writing a book on it.

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