In hockey, it is often the unexpected change of direction, with a rasp of blades and a spray of ice shavings, that turns a routine play into a split second of genius. In politics, however, a sudden reversal rarely looks like a finesse move. So it was last week when Industry Minister John Manley proposed and then withdrew a multimillion-dollar aid package for Canadian NHL teams in just three days. He made the offer with the candid admission that popular opinion was divided and he seemed braced for a public outcry. What caught him with his head down, though, was the extent of that grassroots backlash across the country and hard hits dished out by provincial politicians who, Manley claimed, had hinted they would be receptive to his plan. “Wed clearly had signals that there were things that could be done together,” he said, “if we would only come to the table and clarify what our position would be.”
But there would be no such negotiations. Ontario’s Mike Harris set the tone by angrily declaring: “Our contribution to professional hockey through
taxpayers’ subsidy will be zero as long as I’m premier.” The rest of the provinces that are home to NHL franchises—Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia—also ruled out their participation.
Federal officials conceded that Quebec and British Columbia had always been cool towards the notion of combined federal, provincial and municipal co-operation with the NHL to keep financially strapped teams in Canada. But they insisted Ontario and Alberta had been pleading for federal leadership, without ruling out direct support to teams—until Manley went public with such a plan.
In Harris’s case, the hardline position seemed at odds with steps his own government took last fall. On Oct. 28, Ontario changed tax laws to let its municipalities give arenas—including the Ottawa Senators’ Corel Centre and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Air Canada Centre—relief from property taxes. Ontario stood to lose up to $16 million in rev-
enues if all the municipalities took advantage of the change. Last week, Harris insisted the move was never intended as a tax break for NHL teams. However, in a letter to Manley dated last Sept. 16 and obtained by Macleans, Ontario Finance Minister Ernie Eves clearly framed his “willingness to consider possible property-tax relief options for professional sporting facilities” as one way to help out NHL teams. Eves even wrote that he had already discussed the possibility with “representatives from Ontario’s NHL franchises.” If Harris was taking a more uncompromising stand last week, he was hardly alone. Manley’s announcement unleashed a torrent of anger—from the Liberal caucus as well as opposition politicians, and Canadians from coast to coast. Why, critics asked, was Ottawa extending a helping hand to big-money
hockey when Prairie farmers and Cape Breton coal miners are hurting, and hospital emergency rooms are underfunded. Those arguments were compelling, although Manley’s proposal would have cost Ottawa no more than $20 million a year. During a late-night telephone call, Manley and Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was vacationing in Florida, decided to scrap the proposal.
The next move belongs to Manley’s friend and ally, Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden, who says a decision on whether to sell his money-losing team to a U.S. city would come within 30 days. The Vancouver Canucks’ owners say their team has lost $45 million in the past three years, and both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers are struggling financially. “We would be broken-hearted if either of our teams left,” Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day told Macleans. “But we will not drag taxpayers into this boat.” Last week’s uproar left no doubt many Canadians share his sentiment. G3
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