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Governor General David Johnston takes to the ice at the outdoor rink at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on March 1, 2012. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Governor General David Johnston takes to the ice at the outdoor rink at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on March 1, 2012. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Fighting and 'goonery' not something to celebrate in Canada's game: Governor-General Add to ...

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.

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“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.”

The son of a hardware-store manager, Mr. Johnston lucked into a scholarship at Harvard University when the prestigious school set out to bring in students of “modest background” to give some real-world balance to the students of New England privilege. Mr. Johnston had excelled in school as well as at hockey, football and baseball. He naively went out for the Harvard football team, only to find at the first practice that the coach expected his quarterbacks to fire a football through a tire suspended 40 yards down the field.

“I couldn’t throw 40 yards with the wind behind me,” Mr. Johnston laughs.

But he not only made the hockey team, he became its captain. Playing defence – moved back from forward by coach Cooney Weiland after Mr. Johnston had injured his left hand playing football – he led the Crimson to the league championship in 1963, was twice an All-American and, a year ago, was listed as one of the top 50 players of all time in ECAC hockey.

“He was a terrific hockey player,” says James Dwinell III, a teammate who went on to become chairman of Boston-based Cambridge Bancorp and is now retired in Florida. “Total, total hustle, strong as a bull in the corners. We practised a lot and every practice had a scrimmage, and David’s approach to every drill, every scrimmage was the same as if it was a big game. He had one speed only, and he never gave up. David was a grinder with a capital ‘G.’ ”

Mr. Johnston was tough but no fighter. “I certainly got my share of roughing penalties and elbowing and so on,” he says. “But I don’t recall ever being in a hockey fight.”

He was a ferocious checker. “Cooney would say to me, ‘Johnny, I want you to go in that corner and come out with your teeth and the puck.’ ”

When Mr. Weiland died at age 80 in 1985, Mr. Johnston gave the eulogy. He also wrote a 15-page appreciation that he gave to his daughters so they would know what “Cooney” meant to their father. “The lessons we learned from him on the hockey rink,” the future governor-general wrote of his coach, “have been remarkably wise steering influences in our lives in how we handle life’s exigencies.”

Mr. Weiland – who had won the 1929-30 NHL scoring championship with the Boston Bruins – admired Mr. Johnston, who was, like him, a small player surviving and thriving in a very tough game. In 1963, when Mr. Johnston was graduating, he and Mr. Weiland discussed the chances of Mr. Johnston making the Bruins as a free agent.

“I weighed 150 pounds,” Mr. Johnston recalls. “We concluded that my chances of making the team were 10 to 15 per cent. But there were six teams then. Five years later, there was twice that many.” He might have tried had expansion come earlier to the league. He decided to stay studying, which he loved so much the Boston Globe once ran a story – somewhat cooked, he claims – that he had been working on his thesis between periods of a game.

Mr. Johnston remained in academia, studying at Cambridge and Queen's, later teaching corporate law and public policy and also serving as an administrator at the University of Western Ontario, McGill and the University of Waterloo, where he served as president up until his appointment as Governor-General in 2010.

A few years after Mr. Johnston graduated from Harvard, Erich Segal, a Harvard professor who used to run along the Charles River with Mr. Johnston, published Love Story – later a movie starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw – and the mega-seller included a character, Davey Johnston, who was captain of the hockey team. Mr. Segal captured the real David Johnston’s intensity when he had the main character, Oliver, take a dumb penalty in the final minutes of the championship match. Oliver sat helplessly watching as his captain skated “right by me without so much as a glance. And did I notice tears in his eyes? I mean, okay, the title was at stake, but Jesus – tears!”

These days, the real David Johnston almost weeps for his beloved game. He and his childhood sweetheart, Sharon – they first went out when she was 13 – had five daughters and the daughters now have children skating and playing. Their twin four-year-old grandchildren live close by in Ottawa and often play on the outdoor rink.

“These are kids who are into all sports and they may not have them in hockey,” he says with more than a hint of sadness. “What we see on television is a violent game. We teach not to escalate conflict. Someone bumps into you and the Canadian way is to say ‘Excuse me,’ don’t wait for the other person to say ‘Excuse me.’ Our whole history has been one of avoiding conflict and usually finding consensus and compromise.

“Well, you leap into sports and say ‘Does that transfer?’ I think it does. Because Canadians are known as people who are wonderfully competitive and tenacious and all that, but we’re also known as a highly civilized people in how we conduct ourselves. And when I see on TV the amount of fighting going on, and the goonery, they are not qualities we want to celebrate in our game. They are not the qualities we want to teach our children.

“I want my grandchildren to be able to play hockey and to be able to play the game at its great speed, and its great pace and its great competitive level, but to do so in a way that is civilized and doesn’t encourage a kind of thuggery.”

He wants to see change.

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. He wants to see equipment that protects and does not injure the other players. He wants more severe penalties for slashing, which he sees as “a deliberate attempt to lift up your stick and use it like a club.” He wants fighting to be an instant game misconduct – “and a second fight would be five games” – and he disdains the arguments that fighting is a necessary safety valve. “In any other sport – baseball, basketball, football – they deal with fighting accordingly.” As for the contention that if you eliminate fighting you will force players to retaliate with dirty stick work, he says, “You deal with that retaliation with equally harsh penalties. Other sports manage it and don’t seem to have those consequences.

“Headshots should be gone and fighting should be gone,” Mr. Johnston believes. “To my mind, hockey is the greatest game in the world. And it is so because it’s faster than anything else. Because of that speed, the playmaking, the intricacies, the virtuosity you have, along with the consciousness of five good teammates, make it just a beautiful game. And those are the qualities we want to emphasize. Not the taking off the gloves and beating up on one another.”

He is asked if a society that treats a game as religion can change, and he pauses for a long moment before answering.

“I think you can,” he says. “And I think you especially can in a country like Canada.”

He rhymes off a long list of profound cultural changes in his lifetime: ParticipAction, recycling, seatbelts, smoking …

“I think we can return the beautiful game of hockey to the qualities of the game that are most attractive about it. The speed, the playmaking, the teamwork, the skill.”

And then he is off, snow swirling behind him as he skates, the Grinder with a capital ‘GG’ who believes he has a duty to speak out on the national game.

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