A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & the Rise of Professional Hockey

By Stephen J. Harper

(Simon & Schuster Canada, 352 pages, $34.99)

By Michael Sobota

Yes, Stephen J. is that Harper, Canada’s prime minister. And yes, he did write this book, explaining in at least one interview that he worked on it for “about 15 minutes a day,” on his own time, for the past 10 years.

Reading A Great Game is a little like moving through a thick, cold and dark winter. It is full of obscure names and data, games and scores, teams and owners and coaches and players, that felt like a narrative blizzard.

So much so, that I frequently had to stop and shovel myself out from under this blizzard of metadata. And, just like our real winter, when I would begin the next chapter, Snow plow Harper would come by and plug up my reading path all over again.

The book looks at the very early days of hockey, from just after Confederation until approximately the First World War. It is interesting to read that most hockey was played in outdoor rinks, not much more than open fields, with ice conditions totally dependent on the weather.

Some games were played out in barely frozen mud. There were no Zambonis, no electronic scoreboards, no between-period commentary. In Harper’s meticulous chronicling, however, there was much of what we still observe today: fighting both on and off ice, scheming and manipulative owners and managers, fierce rivalries between city teams and between Canada’s major cities themselves.

Harper makes a case for the development of hockey as a nation builder in the same metaphorical way as the great trans-canadian railway. He focuses his story on the beginnings of “the sport” in Toronto, where certain elements battled to keep hockey amateur, meaning without pay. This notion rose from a colonial consciousness rooted in Victorian England. Money would sully the purity of athleticism.

The chief proponent of true amateurism was John Ross Robertson, the founder of The Toronto Telegram “which, by the end of the nineteenth century, was the nation’s most powerful newspaper.”

Harper also describes Robertson as having the “reputation (of) a puritanical tyrant.” This core belief that sport was pure and noble when it was not done for pay infused the Olympic movement, covering all athletes.

And though we have moved rapidly into an era where professional hockey franchises rival the net value of some Canadian cities and some athletes are paid more than prime ministers or surgeons, the core concept still claims some resonance, at least at the level where it all begins: in your neighbourhood street.

A Great Game is also, ironically, a perfectly Canadian title for a book on hockey. It is not The Great Game, or The Greatest Game. It is simply and humbly “a great game,” amongst all the other ones.

So did Stephen J. Harper really write this? Can a work of history so dense in detail and layered in vivid portraits of the time be written in daily, 15-minute periods over a decade? Mr. Harper readily admits he had help. He generously credits a full-time Calgary researcher, Greg Stoicoiu, and the well-known writer and hockey historian Roy McGregor, who Simon & Schuster hired to personally edit the book and guide it toward publication.

In the final analysis, it is a Canadian history book more so than a passionate hockey read. And one in which to indulge these long, dark weeks of winter.

More on Harper/B6

(Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.)

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