QUEBEC - Quebec's premier is downplaying a suggestion from one of his cabinet ministers that the government could get involved financially in the project to get the NHL back in Quebec City.
Sam Hamad, who is minister responsible for the Quebec City area, raised the possibility of the Liberal government becoming a financial partner of Quebecor Inc., which has bought naming rights on a $400-million arena due to be completed by fall 2015.
Hamad said Wednesday the assistance could be in the form of a guaranteed loan.
He said Thursday that Quebecor (TSX.QBR.B) has made no request for financial aid. The media conglomerate's controlling shareholder is Pierre Karl Peladeau, a member of the legislature for the Opposition Parti Quebecois.
Later in the day, Premier Philippe Couillard responded by saying Quebec taxpayers will not be on the hook for getting a team in Quebec City.
Any government involvement could be controversial given that Couillard's government is in serious cost-cutting mode as it aims to return to a balanced budget.
"As a Quebecer, I would like to see a team (in Quebec City) one day," the premier said. "But it's not true that taxpayers, with public finances as they are, will be up for that."
Jean Charest's former Liberal government invested $200 million — or half the costs — in the construction of the new arena in Quebec City.
Hamad said public finances would have to be healthy for the government to get involved.
"If there's an opportunity that the government believes is good for Quebecers, why not."
One of Hamad's cabinet colleagues was more reserved when asked about the possibility of the government getting involved financially.
Economic Development Minister Jacques Daoust said such support is usually made available when a transaction is too risky for financial markets.
"So, let's ask ourselves a question in case we ever have to answer it," Daoust said. "Is it the state's role to intervene to buy a hockey team in a situation that is too risky for traditional (financial) markets? I'll stop right there."
Daoust insisted he wasn't calling Hamad on the carpet.
"I share his enthusiasm," he said. "I understand people in Quebec City wanting a hockey team. But let's just say that when there is a financial transaction. it will be done my way."
Earlier this month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman vehemently denied the league is considering expansion to Quebec City or anywhere else.
"We don't want to build up anybody's expectations," he said at a Quebecor-organized event near Montreal. "We're not in a position to expand.
"We're certainly not in position to expand into the East. We've been very candid and up front that if, in fact, we go through an expansion process, the world will know about it. But we're not looking to relocate any franchises, and we're not looking to expand. We've been very clear about that since Day One when we were told about the building of the new arena."