OTTAWA – There’s the ghost of a prime minister lurking somewhere between the words of Stephen J. Harper’s gorgeously bound, deeply researched and impressively illustrated and footnoted hockey history.
“A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey,” is the tale of Canadian hockey’s beginnings at the turn of the 20th century and the war between amateurism — with all its character- and nation-building ideology — and the early barnstorming, paid professionals.
Prime Minister Harper famously moonlighted as an author throughout much of his now almost eight years in office, an achievement only exceeded by William Lyon MacKenzie King’s obsessive work as a prime ministerial diarist.
But where King chronicled his personal and political life, Harper disappears behind his hockey subject matter so completely that the author forms an almost photographic negative: What is not there defines the spectral image.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Harper says his writing served “as a distraction from the hectic and obsessive nature of political life.”
Compulsively detailed, the book’s intricate player moves, contract disputes and ownership battles — not to mention century-old scoring feats — can be eye-glazing.
There are occasional vivid descriptions of the early game, and any student of hockey will appreciate Harper’s research on rule changes that gradually opened up the sport.
Harper has said he worked on the book for about 15 minutes each day, and it probably should be read the same way.
But the narrative truly lifts when “A Great Game” chronicles the granite personalities who shaped the early trajectory of the sport in a young, hockey-obsessed country.
Here also flits the ephemeral ghost of the author.
John Ross Robertson, the book’s central figure, is described by Harper as a man with a “breath-taking proclivity for control” who achieved a remarkable degree of power “not only through long hours of dedicated service, but also by constitutional manipulation and self-promotion bordering on self-mythologizing.”
Robertson’s iron control of the Ontario Hockey Association, with its powerful ideological aversion to professionals in sport, resulted in “enforced conformity” and an echo of modern political battles. Writes Harper, “in their search for an enemy, the OHA brain trust would create one.”
There’s not a hint of introspection, rueful self awareness or irony in Harper’s account of the powerful J.R.R. — a man of towering contradictions.
Similarly, the death of the professional National Hockey Association and its immediate rebirth as the NHL, including its 1924 American expansion to Boston, is portrayed as a highly personal battle between former Montreal sports reporter Frank Calder and Toronto team owner E.J. Livingstone.
Livingstone, writes Harper, was a “combative, sanctimonious and generally difficult personality” who “expected others to live rigidly by the rules while he would skirt their spirit.”
The “iron rule” of NHL president Calder won the day.
Author Harper, a master political tactician, offers no insight into this clash of personalities.
Harper describes turn-of-the-century Toronto with a dispassionate, clinical eye and his passing mention of the 1911 “reciprocity” election which rejected free trade with the United States is also devoid of any modern prime ministerial hindsight or analysis.
There are some nice echoes of the modern game from Harper, a devoted hockey fan.
“Managers pleaded for the need to control salaries (in 1908-09) at the same time as they agreed to bigger contracts,” he writes — a situation recognizable to any 21st century fan.
Or how about a 1908 complaint that the “chaotic competition for the ringer-infested Stanley Cup had become a ‘joke.'”
And author Stephen J. finally loosens up in the 14th chapter, called “Overtime,” where he mentions the entry of professionals into the Olympics by describing the Olympic movement as “an unholy alliance of European elitists and Soviet communists who were really marketing nationalism more than amateurism.”
Again, though, there’s no self-reflection from the prime minister/author who was writing his book’s home stretch when his Conservative government trumpeted Vancouver’s flag-draped Winter Games in February 2010.
It is tempting to ascribe the absence of a clear prime ministerial voice in “A Great Game” to either heroic self-discipline or a complete absence of self-awareness.
But then back comes the ghost of Stephen J., winking around the book cover on the very last page.
The closing paragraphs of “A Great Game” summarize how the mighty J.R. Robertson won the battle over amateurism only to lose the longer war.
Harper provides an unvarnished lament for modern professional hockey, peopled by “millionaire players … motivated more by greed than any devotion to the national game,” even wealthier owners “making profits off a ridiculously long season and a largely needless playoff system,” and of “team loyalties … sold as commodities.”
Old J.R. Robertson would have conceded his vision of amateurism lost out, but would still say the battles of a previous century were worthwhile, Harper asserts, quoting Robertson’s own words:
“A poor man is he who journeys through the mazes of a busy world with no purpose in view, no ambition to serve.”
Harper concludes: “In other words, and without hesitation, he would do exactly the same.”