Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government is moving forward with a plan to put defibrillators in recreational arenas across the country, saying hockey rinks are often "witness to medical emergencies, occasionally with tragic results."

Speaking at a rink in Saskatoon, Harper said too many people die because their heart stops while playing hockey and help does not arrive in time to save their life.

That will change, he said, with portable defibrillators rolling out to arenas beginning in the spring.

"I'm very pleased to announce our government is making a significant investment across Canada to ensure every recreational hockey rink will be equipped with one of these lifesaving devices," Harper said, speaking with a backdrop of local hockey players.

"Let me be clear that means a defibrillator in every recreational hockey rink from coast to coast to coast."

The announcement follows up on a promise the government made during the April 2010 federal election. The four-year, $10-million project began with an assessment of the needs of 3,000 arenas across the country.

The federal government is partnered with the Heart and Stroke Foundation on the initiative, which will install the devices in arenas and provide training on their use.

β€œUp to 40,000 cardiac arrests occur each year in Canada -- that is about one every 12 minutes,” said David Sculthorpe, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, in a release.

β€œOn average, only five per cent of people who experience a cardiac arrest survive. With increased public access to AEDs (automated external defibrillators) and early access to CPR, the lives of thousands of Canadians could be saved every year.

Harper, a dedicated hockey fan, said hockey rinks are the "heart and soul of communities across the country."

Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat. A person in cardiac arrest will lose consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.

It is not the same as a heart attack, which occurs when a blocked artery chokes off blood to certain sections of the heart. Symptoms can start slowly and persist for days. Someone having a heart attack should not be treated with a defibrillator unless they go into cardiac arrest.