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Putin on ice: The fact is, most Canadian prime ministers never stickhandled a day in their life (RIA Novosti/Reuters)
Putin on ice: The fact is, most Canadian prime ministers never stickhandled a day in their life (RIA Novosti/Reuters)

Stephen Smith

Will the Paul Henderson of politics please stand up? Add to ...

There's a point in every federal election campaign when the question comes up: How much of a slap shot do we demand of our Prime Minister? Well, we're there now. If it feels more urgent this time, that's because of the ominous news out of Moscow: Vladimir Putin has taken up hockey.

He didn't used to play. As recently as February, the Russian Prime Minister apparently couldn't skate, but then, in his willful way, he pledged he'd learn and, two months later, boom, there he was, scoring goals. A good game, he said, "less traumatic" than soccer.

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Sounds innocent enough, a happy photo op. But Mr. Putin is a politician, so everything he does has a purpose. He's also a former KGB man, so everything he does is more or less menacing. Plus, this wasn't just any ice he was skating on: It was Luzhniki Sports Palace ice, as in 1972, as in Paul Henderson and Vladislav Tretiak.

Remember last July, those Russian TU-95 long-range bombers buzzing near Canadian airspace? Hard to say what they intended, exactly, other than it didn't seem friendly. Mr. Putin's hockey gambit is like that, a sort-of incursion on our sovereignty. Chances are, Mr. Putin was upping some kind of ante. At the very least, it confirms the doubt that's always been in our own hearts, the one that tells us that 1972 decided nothing at all and never will.

Which brings us to the ballot-box question: Which of our political leaders is best suited, hockey-wise, to face off with the St. Petersburg Streak? The answer, of course, is Lester Pearson.

The fact is, most of our prime ministers never stickhandled a day in their life, let alone scored a goal on the power play. That's okay, we tell ourselves, we're a tolerant people. R.B. Bennett sped down the wing? Not to worry: That's what Howie Morenz was for. Pierre Trudeau preferred a canoe? Welcome to it: Jean Béliveau had him covered. For the rest, we're content to extrapolate parliamentary personalities into hockey comparables, which is how we know Wilfrid Laurier was a bit of an old-time Steve Yzerman, and Jean Chrétien was more of a mid-1980s Claude Lemieux.

With Mike Pearson, we didn't have to pretend: A brilliant lacrosse and baseball player, he was our only PM to have earned a legitimate hockey nickname: Herr Zigzag. "Sometimes," he waxed later in life, "I would rather have played for the Toronto Maple Leafs than been prime minister of Canada." In 1921, as a student at Oxford, he starred for the Dark Blues on a European tour that included a rout of Cambridge by 27-0 in just two periods. He went on to play for Switzerland in the European championships, and England wanted him to suit up for the 1924 Olympics. (During the Second World War, he was applauded on the front page of The Times for throwing a cricket ball 104 metres.)

Of the current campaigners, they've all donned their Habs sweaters and said something or other about funding rinks in Quebec. None has appeared, so far, on skates, although Stephen Harper did get into a road hockey game in Ottawa, where he scored on a nine-year-old. But our best bet, if it comes to a straight faceoff with Mr. Putin, is Governor-General David Johnston, a former Harvard captain - although, constitutionally, that might be a problem.

So who's our likeliest Paul Henderson?

NDP Leader Jack Layton has a certain Mickey Redmondness, though that may be just the mustache. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe would seem like an obvious Vic Hadfield or any of the other disgruntled players who declared their independence and left the team high and dry in Moscow. Green Leader Elizabeth May is your Bobby Hull - a formidable force, maybe, but no matter how much he wanted to play, he just couldn't get on the team.

Michael Ignatieff played some hockey as a boy and, in his books, he builds some compelling hockey lenses with which to look at the country. And if he finds himself cast as a lone figure, a little aloof, crouched and crease-bound, then who else can he be but Ken Dryden? Which is confusing, of course, since there's already a Ken Dryden in the Liberal lineup.

Stephen Harper may never have been much of a skater, but we've never had a PM with so much hockey on his mind. It's well-known that he's been working on a history of the game in early Toronto since he took office. He shows up at Calgary Flames games and offers between-period analysis on world junior broadcasts. He probably didn't need to be told, as he was in 2006 by ace American strategist Frank Luntz, that a good way to distract voters is to talk as much as possible about hockey.

As a politician, Mr. Harper has proved shrewd and skilled, with a mean streak as wide as the blueline. A predatory centreman, you might call him, two hands on his stick and an eye on Valeri Kharlamov's ankle and whatever it takes to win. They have a phrase in Russian for this that may still be afloat in the air at the Luzhniki: Bobby Clarke.

Stephen Smith is a writer in Toronto.

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