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Star standing by story of possible hockey match for Harper, Putin

The Prime Minister's Office is denying a published report that Stephen Harper is making plans to play hockey this fall against his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) holds a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the G8 Summit in Heiligendamn, Germany Thursday June 7, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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The Prime Minister's Office is denying a published report that Stephen Harper is making plans to play hockey this fall against his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) holds a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the G8 Summit in Heiligendamn, Germany Thursday June 7, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

TORONTO - The Toronto Star is standing by Monday's front-page story suggesting Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to face off this fall against Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a pair of commemorative hockey games.

Though a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office is dismissing the front-page story as "false," Star spokesman Bob Hepburn said the paper has no plans to retract it.

The story—attributed to unnamed sources—says Harper and Putin would together take part in exhibition games meant to mark the 40th anniversary of the Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit series this September.

When the PMO was contacted about the story Friday, a press secretary told the Star that no scheduling decision had been made for September, Hepburn said.

The PMO issued a much more forceful denial on Monday. Spokesman Andrew MacDougall categorically rejected the report, saying "the story is false" and "the Prime Minister will not be playing hockey against Mr. Putin."

Hepburn said the Star believes in the veracity of its sources, and that the PMO has clearly shifted its position in recent days.

"The nature of their comments appears to have changed," Hepburn said. "They knew what the story was about and there was no denial at that time."

The Star's latest version of the story cites an unnamed source close to the talks as saying the match-up could still happen, and that Monday's denial is just sour grapes.

"I think that what you're seeing here is the PMO is upset that someone stole their thunder on a future announcement,”the Star quotes the source as saying.

"No one has ever said that there's a contract in place for this to happen, but we have had nothing but positive response from the PMO. To say the story is false just sounds to me like they're mad."

The Star story said the first exhibition matchup between the two leaders was scheduled for Sept. 7 in Moscow as part of a month-long event to mark the anniversary of the eight-game summit series, which was played at the height of the Cold War.

The newspaper also reported a second game featuring Harper and Putin was being planned in Toronto, tentatively for Sept. 28.

Canada lost three of the first five games in 1972 but went on to win the series, which has since become a pivotal moment in Canadian sports history.

Putin, now 59, has only been playing hockey for a year or so while Harper, who is 52, played just three years of organized hockey before the age of 13.

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