VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada's federal election campaign hit a very Canadian obstacle on Sunday, as the country's passion for hockey forced a nationally-televised debate between party leaders to be rescheduled.
The French-language debate set for Thursday was switched to Wednesday to avoid a conflict with the start of the National Hockey League's playoffs. Two Canadian teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, are in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.
In a rare show of unity the parties suggested the change when it became clear their debate would clash with the opening game of a series between the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.
Hockey is close to a national obsession in Canada, and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton admitted most people would rather watch the Montreal-Boston game instead of a political face-off.
"Were I not in this election I might very well make the same decision," Layton joked with reporters on Sunday, saying the networks should consider rescheduling Thursday's debate to avoid a conflict with the game.
The Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party that only runs candidates in the French-speaking province of Quebec, said it would be "heartbreaking" to make Quebecer's choose between watching hockey and politics.
The network consortium that runs the debates said the rescheduling was "in the best interest of the general public" and would ensure the political forums "reach as wide an audience as possible."
The English-language debate between the party leaders will proceed as scheduled on Tuesday.
The election has been underway since March 26, but the mid-campaign debates traditionally are a time when many voters begin to pay closer attention to the race. Canadians will vote on May 2.
Polls show the ruling Conservatives leading the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois, but short of its goal of winning a majority government that would not require the help of at least one opposition party to stay in power.
The Conservatives have ruled Canada with a minority government since 2006.
The political parties will have to compete with the NHL for public attention for the rest of the campaign because the league's Stanley Cup champion will likely not be decided until at least early June.
The other Canadian team to qualify for the playoffs was Vancouver, and with the league's best regular-season record they are seen as a serious contender to win the Stanley Cup -- something a Canadian-based team has not done since 1993.
Vancouver's first-round opponent has not been determined yet.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Paul Simao