Canada’s hasn’t had many prime ministers who were good at sports or who exhibited unusual interest in athletics. None, for example, has shown Stephen Harper’s passion for hockey – or his smarts in using it to political advantage.
Lester Pearson was an accomplished amateur hockey player. After attending Oxford in the early 1920s, he was invited to play for England in the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France, but by that time had teaching commitments back in Canada. As prime minister, though, he never played up his hockey pedigree. “Mike” was a baseball nut. He spent more time talking baseball than hockey.
Jean Chrétien was quite athletic. A good golfer and a decent hockey player, he was quick with the elbows and liked to rough it up. Conservatives were of the view that he governed with concussion-like symptoms.
Louis St. Laurent wasn’t much of a sportsman, at least not as prime minister. By that time, as one smart aleck put it, he could get winded playing chess. John Diefenbaker, with that boulder-sized head pitching to and fro, was as awkward as they come. And Joe Clark? Well, no one ever described him as athletically gifted. Once while inspecting an honour guard in some far-off land, he stumbled, almost impaling himself on a bayonet.
Naturally, those prime ministers liked to be on hand at big sporting events to share in the glory. But, by and large, they were wary of mixing politics and sport. The fear was that fans would see it as a crass attempt at vote-getting. Many a dignitary has been introduced at a game only to hear the boos rain down.
But Mr. Harper is changing the sports-politics dynamic. He is moving big-time into our hockey space. He’s on hockey platforms, promoting the sport, every chance he gets. His government renovates rinks across the land, gives tax credits for kids’ hockey equipment. And soon, the big deal: He’s bringing out his very own hockey book, a volume on professional hockey in its early days.
It’s all part of his populist pitch, the new patriotism he is trying to instill. It’s also a personal image enhancer. As Prime Minister, he has found it hard to connect on a personal level. What better way than being the hockey prime minister? The country, egged on by saturation media coverage, is overdosing on the sport.
(Speaking of which, the world junior hockey tournament is a great tradition – but front-page coverage of victories in the preliminary round? One paper war-headlined a win over Denmark! Are we that desperate to cheer for ourselves? Is there any of that good old Canadian modesty left?)
Mr. Harper, it should be said, comes by his hockey interest honestly. Always passionate about the sport, he has hockey trivia contests in his office. His book is a great idea – it will give him more hockey credibility than he has as a mere fan. At the sales counter, it can’t lose. Every party member will be expected to buy it.
Given the Prime Minister’s analytical mind, the book promises to be a good one. Books on modern hockey are plentiful, but there are relatively few about the old days. I have a particular interest myself because I wrote a book, The Red Machine, on the history of Russian hockey. No doubt Mr. Harper has been using it as a source book. (Jesting!)
Of course, some grouse that he’s exploiting the national game for political gain. Other PMs didn’t do that, they say. But given how it appears to be working for him, they may have been missing something.
Pierre Trudeau was captain of his school's hockey team. An earlier online version of this column and the original newspaper version suggested that he had hardly any knowledge of hockey. The incorrect reference has been removed from this online version.