Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The PM earns his skates as a hockey nerd

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Canada's prime minister is a hardcore hockey nerd. We're talking about a guy here with a geeky obsession that's as hard and dense as the coldest core of any vulcanized rubber puck.

And it's an obsession that Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper proudly unfurls in his meticulously researched history of hockey in Toronto in the early 20th century.

A Great Game is the work of a hockey enthusiast and a member of the Society for International Hockey Research who revels in the minutest machinations of league organizers, team managers, players and owners.

While A Great Game's focus is on tracking the inevitable triumph of the professional game over the amateur and the recounting of Toronto's oft-overlooked first Stanley Cup win in 1914, this amateur historian's study rarely passes on a chance to digress. In other words, this meandering tale, if it were not penned by a sitting prime minister, would likely have never been published by Simon & Schuster Canada.

Of course, the political cost to a Canadian politician of professing his or her love of hockey is about as risky as pinning on a poppy on Remembrance Day (By the way, all author royalties from this book go to the Canadian Forces Personnel and Family Support Services).

For those who might wring their hands at the potential taxpayer waste in such indulgent writing, Harper says the genesis of this study originated in 2004 as "a distraction from the hectic and obsessive nature of political life." He paid the project's lead researcher out of his own pocket.

Simon & Schuster hired Toronto author and journalist Roy MacGregor as the principal editor.

So, to be clear, the content of A Great Game is for those who can't get enough hockey esoterica. That said, this study does provide something much more significant to the voting public. It's not any direct insight into the current Senate scandal and alleged improprieties in the Prime Minister's Office.

Rather, its significance arises from the glimpse it offers into the mind of Harper, one of the more private and most disciplined prime ministers, especially when it comes to staying on message, this country has seen.

For example, Harper's celebration of the free market as it "triumphantly" and "inevitably" led to the rise of the professional game shows little awareness that it was the contradictory forces championing monopolistic league structures that gave the "free market" this victory.

Another example that offers a window into the prime minster's mind appears in his sympathetic reading of John Ross Robertson, a Toronto newspaper publisher, a Conservative MP, a philanthropist and "the father of amateur hockey in Ontario."

In Robertson, Harper finds the personification of an amateur movement that refused to compromise its ideals to professionalism. Such an approach allows Harper to frame his "Athletic War" in overly simplistic either-or terms.

While Robertson's defeat was assured, being, we're told, that he was on the wrong side of history, Harper applauds the old Tory's unwillingness to compromise.

To others, such a character trait might indicate a failure of imagination. For those interested, a more shaded and more broadly contextualized interpretation of the "Athletic War" is found in Colin Howell's 2001 scholarly book, Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada.

Bottom line: A Great Game is not a great read. Harper shoots but doesn't score, at least for all but the most rabid of puckheads.

Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a long-suffering fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A1

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