OTTAWA -- The Canadian government is bailing out its six NHL teams to protect what it regards as the country's national heritage.
No dollar figure was put on Tuesday's federal aid package, which runs to 2004 when the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players expires.
The federal money, designed to keep the teams competitive and prevent them from moving to the United States, is contingent upon contributions from the league, city and province in which the team plays.
"The federal government's willingness to participate in a shared solution for Canadian NHL teams is not about giving money to rich hockey players and team owners," Industry Minister John Manley said.
"It's about helping these teams get through a difficult period so they will be in a position to emerge from their current financial problems as sustainable Canadian NHL franchises."
Manley acknowledged the plan has its critics, but said many Canadians feel passionately about the game.
"In our hearts, really, I feel that hockey is really part of Canada," Manley said.
The decision immediately benefits the Ottawa Senators, who already received such assistance. Senators owner Rod Bryden, a former president of the Liberal party of Canada, led the campaign for federal assistance to NHL teams.
The federal contribution is not to exceed 25 percent of the total of any aid package involving the league, the city and the province involved. It will be reviewed annually and is to be repaid to Ottawa if the team moves.
Manley admitted the British Columbia and Quebec governments have shown little inclination so far to help the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens.
The NHL already provides some compensation to Canadian clubs hurt by the low value of the Canadian dollar. Teams get most of their revenues in Canadian dollars and pay most expenses -- notably player salaries -- in U.S. dollars.
"The (Canadian) federal government courageously has shown its commitment to addressing a difficult issue in a meaningful way," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The NHL remains committed to maintaining a strong presence in Canada and we will continue to work with our clubs and governments at all levels as this process continues."
Eric Maldoff, a lawyer with ties to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, will be the federal negotiator who works with the league and other parties in tailoring a package for each team.
Government polls showed little appetite for subsidizing wealthy team owners and millionaire hockey players, and some lawmakers echoed that line Tuesday.
"Nobody wants to see our teams in trouble, but this is a question of priorities," said Grant Hill, a member of parliament. "If you're a patient in an ambulance going from hospital to hospital, or a farmer in the West facing bankruptcy, it's pretty difficult to see that this is on the same scale."
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