It’s one of the year’s most hotly anticipated books: A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey, by Stephen J. Harper, the prime minister of Canada. Mr. Harper sat down at 24 Sussex Drive to talk with Ken Whyte, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, about the earliest days of hockey in Canada, its place in the national fabric, and the current state of the game. The following is an excerpt from their conversation. The complete, exclusive interview will be featured, along with an excerpt from the book, in the next issue of Maclean’s, on newsstands Nov. 7.
Q: The game back then generated real enthusiasm among the fans, and even violent passions on and off the ice.
A: The conception you sometimes get is that violence is a kind of modern, NHL commercial phenomenon. But the violence of the game – unfortunately; I’m not a fan of it – both on and off the ice has literally been a hallmark of hockey since the very first organized encounters in the 1870s. I think arguably the level of violence has actually shrunk.
Q: It does sound a lot worse in those early days.
A: Well, you know, in the 1907 season, the leading scorer on the Cornwall team — in what was considered the second most important league in the country — was killed as a consequence of an on-ice brawl. These brawls, guys brought their sticks, you know? It was a novelty when these guys actually fought with fists; they usually fought with sticks. So it was very violent and, fan violence was a big problem in both professional and amateur hockey.
Q: It’s still omnipresent in the sport now, and we know a lot more now about the repercussions — of the head injuries and so on — than 10 years ago, let alone a century ago. You’re a father and somebody who’s interested in this sport: do you think we have reached, or are going to reach, a point where what has been an essential element of the game to this point is no longer tolerated?
A: I think hockey will always be a very tough sport. That’s just the nature of the game. That said, I think we’re facing new challenges because the players are far better, far stronger, far faster and equipment which serves an essential defensive purpose because of its effectiveness is often used offensively as well. … There are too many head injuries, there are too many dangerous developments that have to [be addressed]. I accept that that’s not easy to do, but I think it’s essential that it be done. And I do think it’s undermining the game.
A: Well, one of the big developments in hockey in the past generation or two has been the decline of [participation]. You know, when I was a boy playing very poorly from the sidelines I was …
Q: Your picture was hung on the wall at the Leaside arena, from what I hear.
A: It wasn’t there at the time, believe me, it was put up much later. Nobody remembered me then! Of my school chums, I was one of probably two-thirds, or three-quarters that played organized hockey. When my son was playing, it was a fraction. And I do think that image, and risks of injury and violence, and pressures to play early at highly competitive levels where those are risks, have increasingly discouraged it from being a mass-participation sport to being really an elite-participation sport, even at a very young age. And I think this is very dangerous for hockey.
Watch for the complete interview in the next issue of Maclean’s, on newsstands Nov. 7.