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Harper's hockey book dull, except maybe not

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Last month, Simon & Schuster published A Great Game, a book by Canada's prime minister about the birth of professional hockey 100 years ago. To the casual eye, the book is a traipse through arcane trivia. But it is also, by accident or design, a rumination on hubris and empire-busting, by a man who knows both topics intimately.

The book, written by Stephen Harper over nine years, is the story of John Ross Robertson, president of the Ontario Hockey Association and defender of British values at the turn of the 19th century -- chief among them, the belief that the sport must remain the preserve of amateurs, free from the taint of money. The inescapable parallel, unmentioned by Harper, is to U.S. collegiate athletics today; what's different is that for Robertson and his fellow Toronto elite, professionalism also meant the encroachment of crass American morals.

Arrayed against Robertson were the forces of technology, economics and culture. Hockey's growth was fuelled by train travel, which allowed teams and fans to move between cities easily; artificial ice, which lengthened the season but required paying fans to cover the costs; and the desire to win the country's new Stanley Cup, which meant competition for the best players -- and with it, the pressure to pay them.

If this were all the book had to offer, it would be a moderately interesting examination of a colourful era, when players didn't just brawl with their opponents "but also fans, officials and even teammates." In hockey's early days, fights repeatedly required police intervention and occasionally dental attention. Harper cites one newspaper's account of a game thus:

"McGregor was all but put out of business by what looked like a deliberate cross-check by Morrison. Six teeth fell out of his mouth when he was bumped like peas out of a pod, but he picked up the gold one and skated off the ice. He showed his gameness by returning, but his real reason for coming back apparently was to get 'even.' "

The charm of passages such as that one starts to wear off after a few hundred pages, as the McGregors and Morrisons add up, along with two dozen leagues, an endless procession of teams and games that blend together. A book that might have explained how hockey became so central to Canada's identity instead descends into an increasingly meaningless blizzard of century-old sports trivia.

Thankfully, A Great Game can also be read as a book within a book, offering a tempting allegory for Harper's perspective on his own rise to power. When he first entered Parliament in 1993, the centre-left Liberal party was almost uncontested in its domination of Canadian politics. For conservatives such as Harper, with their base in Western Canada and affinity for free-market policies, the Liberals represented the worst of Canadian pretension: elitist, statist, reflexively anti-American and contemptuous of anyone who questioned those values -- Harper chief among them.

So when Harper derides Robertson and his amateur-hockey colleagues as "nothing more than excessively powerful, old white men fighting for the values of a dying culture," it's hard not to think of the Liberal party grandees in Toronto and Ottawa who thwarted Harper's political aspirations for 13 years. Like Robertson 100 years earlier, the Liberals portrayed the stakes in moral terms: Canadian concern for the public good pitted against the U.S.-style rule of the market.

By the end of A Great Game, Robertson and his allies have been overwhelmed by forces they can't control, and professional hockey looks much the way it does today. That's small beer compared with the revolution that Harper himself led in the past decade, chipping away at the Liberals' hold on the country until the party wasn't only out of office, but at one point facing very real questions about its survival.

He was aided in that battle by the same forces he chronicles in his book: the evolution of Canadians' values, the missteps of his opponents, the diminishing power of Toronto's political elite and the inexorable pull of American culture, with anti-government animus the latest U.S. export to capture Canadians' attention. The lesson of both stories is that empires that once seemed unassailable eventually collapse.

That lesson gives A Great Game, which would otherwise be a boring book, a touch of poignancy. In the acknowledgements, Harper writes he finished the first draft of his book two years ago. Since then, his government has been shaken by a scandal involving secret and possibly illegal payments to a Canadian senator, made by a Harper confidant whose firing failed to quell the controversy.

Harper's former chief of staff is under police investigation, the consequences of which might well include threatening his party's re-election and reinvigorating Liberals. So the man who identified with his subject's adversaries is now in a position to experience for himself the same magnitude of reversal as Robertson. At least he'll know what to expect.

Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 A17

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