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Stephen Harper

His affection for hockey's past, Stephen Harper writes in a rare revealing moment, began as a personal compensation "for my conspicuous inability on the ice."

Studious and rather unathletic (his description again), he became a sports historian with the unusual hobby of running a country. It's never been clear that the prime minister enjoys his day job, and the distraction offered by this book about Toronto's first hockey teams clearly provided necessary compensation. Mr. Harper normally isn't a living-in-the-past kind of conservative, but when it comes to hockey, some part of him still inhabits those slushy, square-edged curling rinks where the national sport got its faltering start as lacrosse's poor off-season cousin.

A Great Game is exactly the title you'd expect from a leader who's trying to pander to his hockey-loving base. Shed the cynicism: Harper is being critical. The patriotic phrase actually comes from John Ross Robertson, a Toronto newspaper publisher, British imperialist and rabid champion of amateurism who was determined to destroy professional hockey before it got going – a quest of ideological purity that the PM, with his strong sense of economic inevitability, calls "one of history's great dead ends."

The NHL version of salary-cap capitalism has become our model of hockey greatness, but Harper describes a different Canada, where the Anglo-Saxon elite preferred amateurs who played for the love of the game – a British aristocratic notion destined for extinction in a money-driven society. Hockey's working stiffs violated the Victorian belief that money tainted the body's more noble urges. Yet as Harper rightly points out, every time we criticize greedy NHLers who care only about the dollar – a favourite trope during the league's frequent lockouts – we're reverting to our inner amateur.

Volatility is the economist's word for what happens when professional money first compromises amateur love, and the chaos of hockey's early days is wonderfully encapsulated in Harper's phrase "the wild Temiskaming league" – mine-owners in Ontario hotbeds such as Cobalt and Haileybury threw money around like Russian oligarchs. By the end of A Great Game, the messy sorting-out of the free market has produced both an embryonic big-city NHL and spectator-friendly rules that more closely resemble the sport we recognize.

Harper in his other job gets accused of being cold and hyper-rational. But as a historian he's an overly engaged nostalgist, fascinated by the local minutiae of a more primitive version of hockey (no forward passing, no subs, stand-up goal-tending, no red or blue lines). His researcher has diligently supplied him with game-by-game recaps, which he faithfully reproduces with the breathless tone of last century's newspapers.

His investigations into hockey's broader history, from the belated arrival of artificial ice to the preponderance of confirmed bachelors among hockey's early heroes, are more gripping, but the PM doesn't carry his political passion for detailed analysis into his historical narrative.

For example, describing the beginnings of the 20th century: "Trade union troubles were growing. Nonetheless, compared to the past, the times were prosperous and generally becoming more so." It's hard to know when to give credit to his editor, Globe hockey writer Roy MacGregor, but surely one of them should have realized that owners who overpay on salaries aren't "literally bleeding money." Nice thought though.

Verbal amateurism apart, it's enjoyable to catch traces of a more boyish, playful Stephen Harper in his book. What other historian would imagine a showdown on "heaven's hockey rink" between Hobey Baker and Minnie McGiffin or josh with Alberta-Tory knowingness about 1906 Toronto's problems with sloppy natural ice: "Some in Toronto, even then, were suggesting the climate was warming, thus necessitating an artificial-ice rink." A cheap shot, but a good one.

John Allemang is a features writer at The Globe and Mail.

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