It brings new meaning to the role of hockey enforcer.
His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, CC, CMM, COM, CD, FRSC(hon), is out for a little shinny at Government House. It is as if he is skating on the back of the five-dollar bill: red Team Canada hockey jersey, skates, gloves, stick, puck, the ice hard and flat as glass thanks to the lion of early March. He is 70 years old, yet skates fluidly, smoothly, stick blade softly cradling the puck as he glides from one end of the rink to the other and fires a shot hard into the boards.
“If you bodycheck me,” the Governor-General says, “that fellow over there will shoot you.”
He points with his stick toward a large man wearing a snow-dusted overcoat over his weaponry: RCMP security. The man smiles and nods back, as if in agreement. I back off.
Mr. Johnston chuckles at his little joke. No, he acknowledges, lethal intent has not been introduced into the game. But Mr. Johnston is, in fact, adamantly opposed to any and all violence in hockey. It has saddened him to see the state that professional hockey remains in, despite irrefutable evidence that blows to the head are a serious danger to players’ health.
As Governor-General of Canada, the country that has hockey as its national game, he has decided to use his office to speak out, calling for the National Hockey League and lower leagues to bring an effective end to all headshots and fighting. The time for debating over whether or not head injuries, however inflicted, are extremely dangerous to health is no longer a useful debate.
He wants to see action and he has suggestions on how the game can be made safer.
“It’s an appropriate thing for me to talk about,” he says. “I’m concerned about our children.
“What surprises me is that the conversation has not become more focused on change. I think headshots have no place in the game of hockey.” He should know, having previously suffered through three concussions himself the year he turned 16 – two from football, one in hockey – and is acutely aware of the dangers involved. After feeling sick and dizzy for days, he was cleared by the family doctor to play on one condition: He began wearing a helmet when none of the other players were. Either that or quit, so he accepted the order.
The Governor-General still skates regularly on what he calls “the oldest rink in Canada,” the near-full-size rink to the side of Rideau Hall. It was here where the children of Lord Stanley of Preston learned to skate in the late 1880s, here where Stanley’s sons, Arthur and Algernon, played with the Ottawa Rideau Hall Rebels and inspired their father to offer up a trophy in 1892 that would become the Stanley Cup, the holy grail of the national game.
No governor-general in the 28 that have served has come to office with the hockey credentials of David Johnston. He was on skates at age 3 in Northern Ontario – first in Copper Cliff near Sudbury, then in Sault Ste. Marie – and in organized hockey by age 8 as a goaltender. (“I was the smallest kid on the team.”) Later, as a forward, he was recruited to join the Algoma Contractors, a Soo team that featured Hockey-Hall-of-Famers Phil and Tony Esposito.
At one point, Jimmy Skinner, a scout for the Detroit Red Wings, came to the Johnston home to talk about the youngster going off to play junior hockey in Hamilton: “My mother asked him, ‘What university would the boys go on to and what high schools would they be attending?’ The answers were not to her satisfaction and that was the end of any discussions about me possibly going to Southern Ontario to play.”