Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to be stepping back from committing federal funds to Quebec City's pursuit of a new hockey arena to lure the NHL back to the provincial capital.  

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to questions about a new hockey arena for Quebec City on Monday in Sept-Îles, Que. The prime minister says any proposals for a federal role in funding professional sports must recognize Canada is entering a period of fiscal restraint. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

Speaking to reporters in Sept-Îles on Monday, the prime minister said his government has been clear that professional sports are important to communities but are "first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector."

"If there is to be any role for the federal government, first of all, that role would have to be equitable across the country, treat everybody the same, and it also has to be affordable, recognizing that this country is going to be moving into a period of fiscal restraint," Harper said.

Last week, the prime minister said he would be willing to consider funding not just a Quebec arena, but facilities elsewhere in Canada.

Ottawa had hinted it could provide $175 million to the project as Quebec woos the NHL. But that prospect angered some members of the Conservative caucus, including Quebec City-area MP Maxime Bernier.

Flaherty calls for 'national approach'

In an interview on Monday with the CBC's Power & Politics host, Evan Solomon, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the federal government is reviewing the issue from a "national approach."

"Quite frankly, my own view is that I'm always concerned about any start of large government programs with borrowed money that would endanger getting into a balanced budget in the intermediate term," the minister said.

"We can't do something for one sports arena in one part of the country and not have a national approach."

Quebec's proposed $400-million arena to replace Le Colisée is considered a prerequisite for the NHL's return to the city. The Nordiques left in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche.

During last week's Conservative caucus meeting, MPs from Quebec wore vintage Nordiques jerseys and pledged their support for bringing a new arena to Quebec City.

Harper's comments come as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released a petition demanding the federal government not fund professional sports projects, starting with the Quebec arena.

Regina wants federal cash for a new multipurpose stadium that would house the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders, while Edmonton is looking to build a new arena for the NHL's Oilers at a cost of $400 million.