Thursday afternoon at ­RiverCentre in St. Paul, the hot topic was less whether the Wild would beat the Blackhawks later that evening than whether low gas prices will boost tourism this summer in northern Minnesota and neighboring Canadian provinces Ontario and Manitoba.

The consensus among outfitters exhibiting at the 45th Minnesota Sportsmen's Show was a resounding "yes," assuming gas stays relatively cheap through the summer.

"Gas was $1.89 Wednesday in International Falls," said Tom Dougherty of Dougherty's Rainy Lake Houseboats, located not far from that border city. "Canadians are driving across the bridge to International Falls to fill up everything they can — not only their cars and trucks, but cans, too."

Gas in adjoining Fort Frances, Ontario, this week was $1.59 a liter, or more than $6 U.S. a gallon.

Another advantage anglers and other visitors to Canada might have in coming months is a more favorable exchange rate than in recent years. Currently, $1 U.S. is worth about $1.18 in Canadian funds. And while most resorts and outfitters in Ontario and Manitoba charge guests in U.S. funds, ancillary expenses en route to camps and resorts will be reduced.

Another benefit of lower gas costs: Some Canadian floatplane operators are telling resort owners that if fuel prices stay low through the summer, they'll be able to cuts flight costs — savings that in most instances will be passed on to guests.

Less upbeat — and widely discussed at the show — was the new Minnesota law scheduled to take effect in midsummer that requires boat owners to, essentially, take a "test" about aquatic invasive species (AIS) before they receive a required boat-trailer sticker.

The intent of the law is to increase boaters' knowledge about AIS and perhaps hinder their further spread. Training online or by home-study packets is scheduled to be available Jan. 31.

But Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who was at the show Thursday, said the law likely will be repealed this legislative session.

"I voted for it, I'll concede that," Dill said. "But it's not the right way to go, and we're hearing a lot of complaints about it."

With his son, Drake, Dill owns an Ontario fly-in fishing lodge, Thunderhook Fly-ins and Smoothrock Camp, and was at the sportsmen's show touting the operations' walleye, northern pike and lake trout fishing.

"We need to be in the forefront of the fight against invasive species, not the back end," Dill said. "But this is just not the way to do it."

A big concern, Dill said, is that nonresidents who simply want to pass through Minnesota pulling boats also are required to take the training, pass the test and pay a fee.

"So my guests from Indiana or Illinois will have to take a Minnesota test and pay a fee in order to drive to International Falls," Dougherty said.

Ontario has a similar requirement of nonresidents operating watercraft in that province. But the intent there isn't to slow the spread of AIS, but rather to increase boater safety. Older boaters whose home states don't require them to pass a safety course are exempt, while younger boaters covered by home-state restrictions are required to pass the Ontario test and obtain a provincial boater safety certificate.

Also at the show Thursday and expecting a good summer was Mark Schneider, who with a partner owns Tang of the North Lodge, which offers Ontario fly-in fishing out of Nestor Falls.

Schneider, of the Twin Cities, had fished the lodge since 1981 before buying it in 2001. With prices ranging from $425 for three nights in camp and two days of fishing to $775 for a seven-night, six-day package, Tang is a bit of a throwback to a time when northern camps were comfortable with great fishing, but not fancy.

Finally, one of the oldest outfitters at the show Thursday was Halley's Camps, which were started by Louis Halley in 1945. In the years since, the operation has grown to 11 outposts on 11 Ontario lakes and three lodges, all on the English River system.

Show hours Friday are noon to 9 p.m. Hours Saturday are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission is $9. Kids 6-12 get in for $2.50 and children under age 5 are admitted free.

Dennis Anderson