A Great Game: Stephen Harper’s hockey history captures the pulse of a young Canada
Can a book this long awaited also be unexpected? Stephen Harper’s first book is. A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & The Rise of Professional Hockey is billed as a look at the early history of the sport. It’s being marketed as a tale for hockey obsessives. But what it is, really, is something better and more interesting and, from the perspective of book sellers, probably less saleable: a history of Canada in the early years of the last century, before the old world was washed away by The Great War.
The entry into that world comes through the tale of Toronto’s earliest professional hockey teams. Between 1908 and 1914, they challenged for the Stanley Cup. They did so while fighting a far more vicious battle off the ice: against Toronto’s conservative hockey establishment, which sought to destroy any club or player committing the original sin – playing the game for money.
Mr. Harper’s book reads a bit like a PhD thesis, which is to say that it is well researched, and sometimes heavy going. He seems to be aiming to write the definitive take on these events, so minor details aren’t left out. The pacing of the narrative sometimes suffers. But the Prime Minister does a good job of taking you back to the country, and the time, that gave birth to the national game.
The Canada of 100 years ago is in some ways easily recognizable to us: immigrants arrived in record numbers, the cities boomed and hockey was already incredibly popular, with the Stanley Cup already the ultimate prize. Players wanting to make their fortune headed south: After he and his teammates in Berlin (now Kitchener, Ont.) were suspended for accepting a gift of $10 gold coins from the city’s mayor, John “Doc” Gibson moved to northern Michigan and created what appears to have been North America’s first openly professional hockey team, in 1903.
There were debates over hockey violence, and counterclaims that new rules were robbing the game of its manly nature. In 1904, the Belleville Intelligencer accused the authorities of turning hockey into a wimpy “cross between croquet and ping-pong.” It sounds like a quote from Coach’s Corner.
But in other ways the Canada that is the setting for A Great Game is now a foreign country. Toronto before the First World War was run by people who saw themselves as defenders of the British heart of a British Canada. Mr. Harper describes them as so conservative that they remained stuck in the Victorian era long after it had ended, and he contrasts them with the “palpably more flexible” elites of Montreal. (Continued: Globe & Mail)
Letter to the Editor, Hamilton Spectator, November 8, 2013
Kudos to Graeme MacKay for the Great Game cartoon, showing the three Senators being tossed out. Due process was surely a fourth victim.
The long awaited book on hockey by our prime minister reportedly shows great admiration for goalies. They consistently keep over 90 per cent of all shots from scoring. It is an average that Stephen Harper can only dream about, judging from recent Question Periods in Parliament.
Richard Ring, Grimsby