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Stephen Harper’s Other Book: The Politics of Hockey

Stephen Harper’s new book, Right Here Right Now, is receiving widespread attention and stirring considerable debate. Even those who disagree with his political observations have to agree that it is a formidable book that cannot be ignored. That is far different from the response to his previous book.

Reviewers never quite knew what to do with Harper’s hockey book, A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey, which was published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Libraries didn’t know whether to classify it as a sports book or a political book or whether to buy it at all. Other reviewers seem to have had a hard time trying to decide if Harper was serious. Some newspapers and magazines were so puzzled that they didn’t review it at all. What was Canada’s prime minister doing writing a book about hockey instead of about politics? How did he have time, and why did he do it? In the Acknowledgements, Harper said that he wrote the book because he needed a hobby away from his demanding job. It is hard to conceive of writing a book for fun or as recreation. Writing a book is very hard work. This certainly reinforced the image of Harper as a serious, work-before-play kind of man, the person who said he didn’t have enough personality to go into the family business of accounting.

On the other hand, for those who took the time to read it, it was clear that the book upset a number of preconceptions. Many people considered Stephen Harper to be someone who was totally preoccupied with politics. For them, it was almost inconceivable that he would devote so much energy and passion to something as frivolous as hockey.

Harper was also considered by many to be a narrow-minded right-winger (in the political sense, not the hockey sense). And yet the book showed a remarkable sensitivity to social, cultural, and economic issues affecting average people. In one sense, the book was more a social history than a sports book.

Harper was also often characterized as a dyed-in-the-wool Albertan, a western Canadian with little understanding of or interest in “central Canada.” And yet the book focused on Toronto and on Ontario and Quebec, showing considerable understanding of the socio-economic, cultural, and intellectual history of Canada’s largest provinces. This should not have been surprising since Harper grew up in Toronto, but it still came as a surprise to many people.

Finally, many liberal intellectuals tended to dismiss Harper as an intellectual lightweight. It was no doubt puzzling to them that Harper could produce a well-researched, well-documented, and well-written volume—the kind of book a university professor might write—especially in his spare time.

The book traces the development of professional hockey in Canada (and the US), with a strong focus on Toronto. It culminates with the story of the Toronto Professionals, the first Toronto team to play for the Stanley Cup (in 1907, losing to a team from Montreal), and the Toronto Blue Shirts, who actually won the Cup in 1914. Harper pointed out the irony that neither of these teams has been acknowledged as part of the heritage of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Stigma of Professionalism

Part of the puzzlement arose from the fact that Harper began the book with a long and insightful explanation of why there was such opposition to the development of professional hockey, in Ontario especially. It is an attitude that seems puzzling today. Yet, as Harper explained, at the start of the 20th century sports were considered to be an activity for upper class young men at upper class schools. Sporting activities were seen as a preparation for war. If hockey players needed to be paid, it meant that they were from the lower classes and should therefore be spending their time working rather than playing sports.

Harper did not spell out all of the ramifications of this attitude, such as that it was championed especially by upper class men of British ancestry. He did explain that the central figure in this was John Ross Robertson, “an ardent British imperialist.” For years, Robertson ruled the Ontario Hockey Association, which fought an unrelenting war against professionalism, banning every player even suspected of receiving payment for playing any sport. Robertson’s view had strong support from the leading Toronto newspapers of the day. This was no accident. Robertson himself was the founder and publisher of the Toronto Telegram. His close colleagues in the OHA included Francis Nelson, sports editor of the Toronto Globe, and W.A. Hewitt, sports editor of the Toronto Star.

It is interesting to note that it is the intellectual descendants of these men, the intellectual and financial elites of Ontario, who have often derided the attempts by a man like Stephen Harper to write a book (or to be prime minister). They seem to feel that writing books (and running the country) should be left to the elites (such as government-funded university professors, wealthy businessmen, and lawyers) who do not need to make money from the process. It is also interesting that many of the modern Olympic officials who likewise continued to champion amateur sports throughout the 20th century were descended from European aristocracy. 

Although Harper did not deal with this in his book, the idea that sports should be reserved for the upper classes was not a new one even in the early 20th century. There is an oft-quoted and probably apocryphal statement by the Duke of Wellington that “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (Eton is an upper class English boarding school for older boys founded in 1440, which has trained 19 British prime ministers and many members of the aristocracy.) Of course, the statement implies that battles are won by officers, not the soldiers who are doing most of the fighting. Later commentators from other perspectives have pointed out that a lot of battles have also been lost on such playing fields—by arrogant, narrow-minded, incompetent upper class officers who did not understand what was actually going on in the trenches. World War I, which took place shortly after the era Harper was writing about, is a prime example.

The attitude goes back much farther even than Wellington—to the Middle Ages, when nobles (defined as knights who could afford a horse and fought on horseback) dominated warfare. Back then it was sports such as jousting and hunting that were reserved for the upper classes. But even then, the theory often outran reality. In the Hundred Years War, the English victories in France were often won by lower class long bowmen (archers) who mowed down the mounted horsemen of the French nobility. Of course, all of this goes far beyond the era that Harper was researching for his book.

Other Nuggets

In addition to their other failures to appreciate Stephen Harper, few in the mainstream media have been willing to recognize that Canada’s 22nd prime minister had a well-developed sense of humour. Harper’s hockey book is filled with a number of other fascinating nuggets, which may or may not have relevance for the present day:

            · Most early games were played on natural ice, with the result that championship games in the spring were frequently postponed or played on slushy ice.

            · Early hockey games were more violent than current games, with brawls sometimes even involving fans and officials.

            ·  Professionalism in hockey took root in the US, the Canadian West, Quebec, and northern Ontario before it finally gained a strong presence in southern Ontario. (Those places were less tied to upper class British tradition.) 

            · It was the professional leagues that created the modern game out of something quite different. For instance, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (in which all teams were owned by the Patrick family) established 22 rules that are now standard in the National Hockey League and other leagues. The original game had seven players per side, few substitutions, no red and blue lines, and no forward passing.

            · The first professional players were itinerant, sometimes moving from team to team and league to league several times in the same season. Few of them married or had children.

            · Within a year of the founding of the National Hockey Association, competition for players led to exorbitant salaries, complaints by owners that they were losing money, and attempts to establish a salary cap.

            · The first professional hockey team in Toronto, imaginatively named the Professionals, was formed to give Toronto a chance at finally winning the Stanley Cup, which had so far eluded the city. It didn’t work.

            · The National Hockey League was formed in 1917 in order to get Toronto and its troublesome owner out of the league. (This was accomplished by dissolving the National Hockey Association and reforming the league under a new name with most of the same teams.)

            · After winning the Stanley Cup in 1914, the Toronto Blue Shirts’ roster disintegrated. Many of the same players won the Stanley Cup again while playing for the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917.

            · Contrary to popular opinion, Vancouver has won a Stanley Cup, in 1915 with a team called the Millionaires.

            · The real and original Montreal Canadiens are the Toronto Maple Leafs. (The original franchise was sold and moved to Toronto.) The current Montreal Canadiens are actually the Haileybury Comets. (That franchise was moved to Montreal from a small mining town in northern Ontario.)

 

Another version of this article was earlier published in C2C Journal.

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