OTTAWA — File this one in the only-in-Canada category.
A multi-partisan outcry has led to the rescheduling of a federal election debate so that it does not overlap with a first-round Montreal Canadiens playoff game.
The French-language debate had been scheduled for Thursday, the same day the Habs face off in their first playoff game against the Boston Bruins. Interest in that post-season series is particularly high, given the recent history of bad blood between the teams.
Bloc Quebecois Leader and passionate sports fan Gilles Duceppe led the outcry Sunday by saying there’s little doubt hockey-mad Montreal fans would choose the game over the debate.
NDP Leader Jack Layton later echoed those sentiments, the Liberals followed suit, and the Conservatives said they could live with whatever the debate broadcasters decided.
By day’s end, a scheduling change was announced: the French debate will now be held Wednesday.
“The change was made with the consent of all parties participating in the debates,” said a statement from the consortium of broadcasters organizing the affair.
“(It) is in keeping with the Consortium’s goal of ensuring debates are scheduled to reach as wide an audience as possible. The Broadcasting Consortium believes this schedule modification is in the best interest of the general public.”
The public showdown pitting the Habs versus the four major federal political parties began at a morning news conference with Duceppe.
The Bloc leader pointed out that the first English debate is scheduled for Tuesday, before the playoffs begin. The only other Canadian team in the playoffs is the Vancouver Canucks and they still don’t know their first-round opponent.
“All I’m asking is that the debate take place Wednesday so that Quebecers have as much access to this debate as Canadians,” Duceppe said.
“We all know that hockey is very popular in Canada and in Quebec, which is why it would be a better idea to push the French debate back to allow hockey fans to watch the debate as well as the game on Thursday night.”
The response from two of the other parties was strongly in favour, while the answer from the Tories was slightly more equivocal. A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the decision belongs to the broadcasters and the Tory leader would be there on whatever date they choose.
The NDP’s Jack Layton said he could sympathize with hockey fans.
“A very large number of people are going to choose to watch the Canadiens play,” Layton told reporters in Toronto.
“Were I not in this election, I might make the same decision.”
The ratings figures for Canadiens playoff hockey are actually quite similar to the ones for leaders’ debates.
An average of 1.3 million viewers tuned in on French-language RDS to watch the Habs’ first-round playoff defeat of the Washington Capitals last year, with the figure for the decisive Game 7 reaching 2 million. By comparison, 1.4 million people tuned into the French-language leaders’ debate in 2008.
Interest is high in this upcoming Montreal-Boston series.
The teams had played intense, fight-fuelled games this year and have a professed dislike for each other. Then several weeks ago the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara delivered a devastating hit on Max Pacioretty that put the Canadiens forward in hospital and prompted a Montreal police investigation.