After enduring two days of intense political forechecking from the press, the public and politicians across the country, the Canadian government announced today it would not go ahead with its plan to subsidize the country's six NHL franchises in order to keep them from moving to the United States.
The turnaround represented an embarrassing admission by Prime Minister Jean Chretien that he had misread the depth of Canadians' attachment to the professional level of their national sport. Although the subsidies announced Tuesday were relatively small--at most $12 million a year for six teams--Canadians were outraged by the idea that their tax dollars would be used to subsidize millionaire players and team owners.
Opposition to the plan had virtually united the country--east and west, liberal and conservative, French and English speakers, with unprecedented numbers of angry calls logged by members of parliament. Most newspapers ran entire pages of angry letters to the editor on the subject.
Chretien also faced an open rebellion from members of his own party in the House of Commons who rarely dare to criticize government policy.
"Quite simply, people are beyond furious," Liberal MP Roger Gallway wrote in a letter to the prime minister, calling the hockey plan "a tremendously stupid move."
By Thursday evening, members of Chretien's staff were pointing fingers at each other for the debacle in whispered conversations with reporters.
"This proposal is dead and we will not be pursuing the issue any further," Industry Minister John Manley said this morning from the same podium at which he had announced the program on Tuesday. "Canadians have made their views known on taxpayers' assistance to professional hockey. . . . The prime minister and I want them to know that this government listens and takes their views very seriously."
Industry and government officials said today that without some form of government support, the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames might head south. Few, however, expect the country's two most popular and financially sound teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadians, to consider a move.
"If this leads to the demise of the National Hockey League teams in Canada, it will be a very sad development," Manley said. "My hope is that, maybe, there are other solutions."
Following Manley's announcement, Senators owner Rod Bryden said today he would take several days to "reassess the situation." Bryden's threat to sell the team had prompted Chretien to consider some form of assistance.
In New York, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman renewed the league's commitment to work with small-market Canadian teams to insure their financial viability.
"We have challenges," he said. "We as a league will do everything we can to keep the six teams in Canada and keep them competitive. [But] I'm not as optimistic today. . . . This is a point where we have to step back and almost on a club by club basis reassess and decide what we have to do and if the club has a viable future."
Sports economists have suggested that the only way to ensure the viability of small-market teams would be for the league and its players' union to adopt a collective bargaining agreement that puts a cap on how much any team can spend on salaries in a given year. But Bettman, in a news conference, suggested that at least part of the problem for Canadian franchises stemmed from the higher tax burdens the teams faced.
Canadian officials said they were aware from public opinion polls that they might be on thin political ice in using taxpayer funds to subsidize professional sports. But Chretien and some of his advisers were also skeptical of the polls, fearing that voters would punish any government that sat back and did nothing as Canada continued to lose its grip on a game so closely identified with the national identity. Since 1995, two NHL teams have moved from Canada to U.S. cities.
"We're going to do the best we can under difficult situations," Bettman said. "I thought we all thought on Tuesday we were well on our way to resolving this situation. Now in the space of 48 hours, it's been turned on its head."
Among the most most vocal in support of subsidies was Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who told cabinet colleagues he had been put through the wringer when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996.
But this week, Axworthy's office logged an unprecedented 400 calls from voters, the vast majority of them opposed to hockey subsidies. Particularly irked were grain and hog farmers upset that the government was not doing more to help them through the worst farm crisis since the Great Depression.
Although Manley's plan would have required that federal subsidies be matched by tax breaks from provincial and local governments, local politicians were quick in signaling they weren't interested.
"We don't have a nickel for the NHL owners or the players," said Mike Harris, the Ontario premier, who added he wouldn't even appoint a negotiator to sit down with the teams and Manley to discuss it.
In Alberta, home of the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, the popular treasurer, Stockwell Day, said his province's only participation in a bailout would be to continue its policy of low taxes--hardly the kind of matching contribution Manley had in mind.
Even in hockey-crazy Montreal, the mayor dubbed the government's program a "scandal" and tabloid columnists lined up to express their outrage.
Manley himself got an earful Wednesday when he visited a shipyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where some 3,000 workers have been laid off in recent years. "We aren't talking about helping rich hockey players," Manley told union members who couldn't understand why Canada was unique among countries in subsidizing hockey but not shipbuilding.
Journalist Stephen Brunt seemed to sum up the public mood in his column in today's edition of the Globe and Mail of Toronto. "It didn't matter that other government boondoggles routinely squander that much and more," he wrote. "This was a symbol and a catalyst, one of those moments that seems to capture so much of what's wrong with the world."