Stephen Harper on hockey’s problems and his secret life as an author

An exclusive interview with the Prime Minister

Kenneth Whyte
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Jason Ransom / PMO

Jason Ransom / PMO

Q: I don’t know of any sitting prime minister who’s published a book. Do you?

A: I’m told not. I certainly know of politicians who’ve written books, usually out of office. I know John Major out of office did an excellent book on the history of cricket in Britain, a really scholarly book.

Q: So why write a book in the first place, and why write this book in particular?

A: Well, I actually began writing this book after several people had suggested I write a political book when I was leader of the opposition—my ideas for the country, and so on. And, you know, I remember watching Preston Manning struggle with his book, all the work he put into it. I’m a slow writer, so I wondered if it was really worth the effort. Then somebody suggested a very tight political book that made a lot of sense, that would not take a lot of my time, was very focused, and it would serve a useful purpose for the electorate. So, one week, starting at 8 o’clock, whenever I’d finish my work, I began drafting an outline for this book. After a week or so, I thought to myself, “As much as I see the point here, I really don’t want to do this. I spend all day, almost seven days a week, working in politics, so the last thing I want to do at night is write a book about politics.” But I thought, “Let’s do something.”

My father had written a great book on the military history of regimental flags, spent years and years on it. It was really the thing, I think, of all the work he did in his life, he took the most pleasure from. [I thought,] “Why not work on something else as a sort of diversion/distraction?” I was very interested in hockey history when I was a boy, and I had spent a lot of time on it as an adult. So I started to get back into that, and then, one thing led to another to this particular topic.

Q: And the particular topic is hockey, the birth of professional hockey at the turn of the 20th century. So what was Canada like at that point?

A: Canada was much smaller, economically much weaker, although the country was in a good mood. The last couple of decades of the 19th century had been very difficult, [with a] very poor economy, massive migration and so on. Things started to turn around at the turn of the century. So the country was very upbeat—it was a growing country, a growing economy. Obviously, the face of the country was very different, the population was obviously dominated by people of English [and] French background, although it was never exclusively that. Its conception of itself was very different, not that there was not a national identity: For English Canadians in particular, the broader identity of the British Empire was an overwhelming reality, and of course, it was felt essential to national security.

It was this period where, although relations had improved between Canada and the United States, we were far from being allies or even close friends, and the Americans were still regarded in these circles as quite a potential menace. You had a very different global reality: Britain and America not entirely friends, Canada very much aligned with Britain, and its security as a nation was attached to its identity and its relationship to Britain, and very threatened, in an existential sense. So a very different time.

Q: And the game of hockey at that time was a [different] game.

A: There were a lot of things different. Everybody looks for the founding of hockey and all the various places the games were first recorded to be played on ice in Canada or elsewhere, and the very first kind of formal game in Montreal, but the real defining period of hockey as we know it today is when hockey professionalized and radically altered its rules over a 10-year period to go from the original game to the sport we know today. There were just so many things that were different then: seven players on the ice, very little substitution, no forward passing. If you went to a game then, in the early 1900s, you would barely recognize it, although fans were just as excited and into it then. And this was all big news right across the country. Games were watched, player movements were followed carefully, people would never have seen the big stars in Montreal—where most of the big stars were—but they would know who they all were and they would know how they were doing.

Q: Yes, it’s clear from the book that hockey inspired real enthusiasm among the fans. You might even say it inspired violent passions, on and off the ice.

A: Yeah. Well, the conception you sometimes get is that modern violence is kind of an NHL commercial phenomenon. Violence—unfortunately, I’m not a fan of it—the violence of the game on and off the ice has literally been a hallmark of hockey since the very first organized encounters in the 1870s. In fact, I think, arguably, the level of violence, when one considers the light equipment of players, has actually shrunk.

Q: It does sound like it was a lot worse back in the day.

A: Well, during the 1907 season, the leading scorer on the Cornwall team, in what was considered the second most important league in the country—that’s a federal league—was killed as a consequence of an on-ice brawl. These brawls were guys who brought their sticks, you know? It was a novelty when these guys actually fought with fists; they usually fought with sticks. So it was very violent, and fan violence was a big problem in both professional and amateur hockey.

Q: Who was John Ross Robertson?

A: He is, arguably, the central character in the book, not known well today, although a school in Toronto remains named after him.[He was] the founder of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram you and I remember. I actually briefly delivered newspapers for the Telegram.

Q: Yeah?

A: Sold my route just before they announced they were closing.

Q: I didn’t know you could sell a paper route.

A: Oh, you could in that day and age, one of the few real profit-making transactions I ever did.

Q: I’m impressed. I never made much money on my paper route.

A: I did, and I was the last one to make money on that one. Yeah, he was founder of the Toronto Telegram, an extremely powerful individual, member of parliament in the late 1800s from Toronto, and—most notably in the book—president of the Ontario Hockey Association, then the governing body for hockey in Ontario, which is still the body for amateur hockey. He was a larger-than-life character, and a fanatic—there is really no other polite way to describe it—a fanatic against professional hockey, a fanatic against professionalism in sports. And this is really, in a sense, what the book is about, and what drew me into this particular topic.

John Ross Robertson led a crusade against professional hockey. It is actually hard for people to comprehend now. You really have to read this stuff to believe the degree to which professionalism in sport was a socially divisive issue. The country was so divided on this issue that we almost didn’t field an Olympic team in the 1908 Olympic Games. Literally, leading members of society were regularly in papers denouncing each other based on their views on how to accommodate professionalism in sport.

Q: Unpack those divisions. You have on the one side John Ross Robertson, and he represents the amateur point of view.

A: Yeah, John Ross Robertson represents a view that professionalism in sport—in hockey, in particular—is morally repugnant, can never be tolerated, not a shred of it, and he is a guy that basically controls all of hockey in Ontario and is, through his connections, essentially the driving force of an entire movement across Canadian sport.

Q: What’s repugnant to him about mixing commerce and sport?

A: You know, the funniest thing—it was one of the few significant changes we made when I did the rewrite—was that we originally had a long preface, kind of a negatively oriented preface where we tried to explain the position of the amateur zealots. Certainly, a lot of that material remains in the text but, in the end, it’s actually extremely difficult to explain. You could look at their reasons, you could come up with kind of broad social explanations, but the fanaticism of it, particularly coming from business—John Ross Robertson was a businessman—most of the people opposed to professionalism in sport were leading businessmen, and yet their view was that commercialization, or commerce—pay—in sport was, essentially, for lack of a better comparison, no different than prostitution, no different than the sex trade. It was just a morally illegitimate activity.

And one can explain historically why that existed, if you go way back to Britain: Sports were originally the domain of the aristocracy, and the aristocracy was not commercial. Britain had an evolution; it adopted many of the cultural values of the previous elite vis-à-vis sport, and you had a powerful movement around the same time, the Olympics in the late 1890s, that also not only revived international sport but revived the amateur ideal. It was a fundamental belief that one played for either love or money. It was inconceivable to these people one could do both.

And, of course, historically, the great sports, respectable sports, were the sports of the aristocracy, the great clubs, gentlemen’s clubs, for people who didn’t want or need pay, and the sport—professional sport—historically, was the sport of the tavern: cheating, hooliganism, violence, precursors of some of the worst pro wrestling or, you know, cock fighting, you name it, so you had entrenched social views. And sometimes, there is no rational explanation, it’s just the way it is and the way people saw the world. I try and evaluate and tell the story in as neutral a way as I can, but it’s hard not to conclude that these cultural values related to sport were simply completely divorced from the reality of where society was going.

A young Stephen Harper as a Leaside Lion. (Courtesy of Leaside Arena)

Q: Let’s talk about the other side. You had Robertson and the amateurs, and then you had a lot of other people who weren’t part of the social elite in Toronto whom Robertson represented: many of them who were athletes themselves, players themselves, who were attracted to the professional game, and they did seem to come, for the most part, from different cultural backgrounds.

A: I’d say you had two other groups, and I think it’s important to mention there were really three groups, there’s the hard-liners. There’s also a group of people who believe in amateur sport, as there remain today, who believe in amateur sport but do believe that amateur sport had to adapt to commercial realities within a certain measure. And to some degree that’s preserved in amateur sport and in the Olympic movement up ’til today.

Q: So you had hard-line amateurs and hard-line professionals and . . .

A: And, well, you had the compromisers, you had professionalism. I don’t know if you had professional advocates; you just had professionalism starting to grow, and it was really growing as a consequence of the popularity of the sport and the desire to sell tickets and, naturally, teams try to attract the best players to their teams. Professionalism wasn’t a movement in hockey at first, as much as it was just an outgrowth of the reality of commercial society and the popularity of the sport. What happened is, you had a huge debate between people to accommodate or not accommodate, and then a consequence of the failure of any accommodation was the increasing growth of dedicated professional hockey, and a professional sport class beginning south of the border to a large degree, something called the International Hockey League in Michigan and Pennsylvania that just gradually turned the game around.

Q: One of the things that I was really impressed with was how quickly the money got pretty good for the players playing.

A: Before professionalism, hockey players were almost always the sons of wealthy or influential professional men. You see very quickly as professionals [players from] less privileged backgrounds, from rural areas, and the owners and the managers ceased to be the well-connected social elite. The owners become big industrialists, mining interests, lumbermen. The National Hockey League—the predecessor of the National Hockey Association—[was] essentially founded by a bunch of miners and lumber people from Renfrew and the clay belt. So yeah, you have this shift, and the money’s very good very quickly.

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Q: I was wondering why you would pick a hockey book to write in the first place, but also this subject in particular. I got most of the way through the book before I realized how intensely political the subject is. You mention that these are zealots on the amateur side and this is a hugely divisive social issue, amateurism versus professionalism, and you have men who are leading institutions and trying to shape institutions according to their own ideologies and using those institutions to try to shape society to better align it with their ideologies. It is, in essence, a story about hockey but also a story about political conflict.

A: Well, yeah, it’s a political conflict, a commercial conflict, a social conflict. It’s political in the sense you say, [but] it actually had few direct consequences in the political arena itself.

Q: Not capital-P politics.

A: No, ironically, it wasn’t an issue that divided Liberals and Conservatives or was debated in parliament, although it ultimately had some repercussions. What drew me in is, first of all, I’m interested in the era because it is the origin of modern professional hockey, and then what drew me to this story was one particular quote from Robertson where he, for all intents and purposes, says that if you favour professionalism, you’re disloyal to the country, you’re a traitor. He says you’re either pulling a Union Jack like our fathers or you’re in favour of annexation to the United States. This is one of the most highly respected people in the Province of Ontario making these statements, with huge followings.

Q: He’s saying you’re un-Canadian if you’re in favour of professionalism of sports.

A: It blew me away. So I got into researching this particular team that was the first Toronto professional hockey team that was trying to lay down roots in this kind of an environment.

Q: You say he’s a zealot, and it is really a story about a crusader with a cause running up against reality. You are surprisingly sympathetic, I think, toward the zealot, given what I take to be your own more pragmatic nature.

A: I really went out of my way because I was doing this as a sort of semi-scholarly study. I am an amateur here, but I did do an awful lot of reading on not just history of two particular teams—the goals they scored, who scored them, all those things—I did a lot of research on the hockey of the era, on its economics, on the kind of social issues and social values of the period. So I was going out of my way to try and be as fair as I can. I actually should say, when I started, I probably initially was much more skewed against Robertson, which most typical histories are, and I just concluded it wasn’t fair, for two reasons. First of all, my job here was not in any sense to pick sides; it was really to just tell the story as it was and try to do it with as much dispatch as possible. The other one—and this I will say notwithstanding there are many distasteful parts of Robertson’s character when you look at him from the perspective of 21st-century man—but the unfair criticism was that he was a hypocrite or unprincipled. He was a man who lived his values, was extremely consistent and kind of went down fighting, and you end up admiring the romantic. And I think, by the end, he knew he was losing, and would lose, and why.

Now, in the end—one should be under no illusion—I just don’t favour his side, I don’t think the argument against professionalism in sports makes any sense. I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s where, like all Canadians, I was outraged by the banning of Canadian professional hockey players from international hockey by people in the Olympic movement. I found it offensive and distasteful, and so my own biases, when I come right down to it, are with the other side. But I try not to relish their victory, I try just to tell it straight.

Q: It is a story of a zealot coming up against reality. It’s also a story of a populist movement defeating the elite.

A: I suppose, although, by the end, the people loading professional hockey are a new kind of elite. The people who end up winning and leading pro hockey are big-time industrialists, they’re kind of a different type of capitalist.

Q: They become a different kind of elite.

A: Yes, so it would be wrong to tell the story as the uprising of the ordinary guy against big, powerful people, because it was actually much more complicated than that. Many ordinary people, many ordinary families, hockey players, fans, believed in it and supported it. Many very powerful, wealthy people disagreed with it entirely and support[ed] it professionally, or supported the movement to professionalism. I think what’s important to remember about this is that, as much as professionalism has won, we still have vestiges of this philosophy. For instance, our own government, the federal government, we support amateur sport financially, we encourage it. We support professional sport not because we dislike it, [but] because we believe it has to stand on its own commercial criteria, its own feet. I attend the Grey Cup game, I support my Calgary Flames, I still have my vested interested in Toronto and the east part of the country, Maple Leafs, but we have a different view of amateur sport. I don’t think that professionals are corrupted, I’ve watched and met the professional athletes who won the gold medal for Canada in 2010. You’ll never meet a group of people who had more on the line.

Q: Just playing for their country.

A: In fact, because they were professional, I think they had more on the line just playing for their country. We still have different expectations of athletes. Tiger Woods gets caught in his sexual escapades and has this flurry of condemnation, withdrawal of sponsorship, suddenly becomes persona non grata in the world of golf. Lots of people conduct themselves disgracefully in their personal lives in business, and rarely in any other line of work would that be a legitimate reason to start blackballing or firing somebody, but we think that athleticism, being an athlete, is about being a role model, about having not just developed your body but developed heroic qualities, and it isn’t good enough just to be the best golfer in the world; they’re supposed to also be a good person. That’s part of what a great athlete is. We still make distinctions in sport that reflect the vestige of amateurism.

Q: And do you personally believe that they should be held to a higher standard?

A: I do, and I don’t know why. I find, for example, I watch a lot of professional football, and I find trash-talking at the end of every play to be disgraceful. It’s now common practice. I think it should be penalized, driven out of the game. I do think because sport is a form of controlled combat, in a sense, we allow people to—especially in contact sports on a playing field, we allow them to—do things that you would not allow them to do in other aspects of life. We compensate for that by demanding people play within the rules and demonstrate standards of conduct, and I’ve had many sports heroes, but I will never have, as one of my sports heroes, an athlete—no matter how great he is—who I think is a bad sport or a bad person. I may watch them play, I may admire what they do on the field, but I will never admire that kind of an athlete or want his autograph. You know, somebody like Wayne Gretzky, who obviously is a great hockey player, but from everything I’ve seen first-hand, is a great person. These are the kinds of people that I admire, and I expect it out of our hockey heroes.

Q: Is that not the same for all people who work in the public eye, of whom we have those expectations? I think it’s definitely true of athletes. We accuse artists of selling out if they go commercial, politicians the same thing. You’re a professional politician and you’re supposed to be somebody who comes to it with the spirit of public service.

A: I think politics—political life—is supposed to be about public service and, I always say to young people even though I’ve spent the majority of my working life in politics, “You should never plan a career based exclusively on politics; you can’t either assume you will never be defeated, and you certainly don’t want to be in a position where you would have to be elected no matter what.” There are things, presumably, in this business, you favour doing and don’t favour doing, and under some circumstances, you’ll choose to be defeated and go work in other lines of work. So I think anybody aspiring to be in public office should not be aspiring to be just in public office.

Q: Getting back to the violence for a minute, you mention that, in many respects, it seemed to be worse then, but it’s still omnipresent in this sport now, and we know a lot more about the repercussions of head injuries than we knew 10 years ago, let alone a century ago. You’re a father and somebody who’s interested in this sport: Do you think we have reached, or are going to reach, a point where what has been an essential element of the game to this point is no longer tolerable?

A: I think hockey will always be a very tough sport. That’s just the nature of the game. What fascinates people who are uninitiated with hockey—I’m thinking of non-Canadians when they first see how, by their standards, violent and malicious the sport is, especially given their image of Canadians—they’re usually just blown away. That said, I think we’re facing new challenges, because the players are far better, far stronger, far faster than they ever were before and, obviously, the conditions they play in allow that, and the equipment, which is like all equipment in sports, equipment which serves an essential defensive purpose because of its effectiveness often is used offensively, as well, and so I think the regulation of the game is lagging in terms of what has to be done. I just think there are too many head injuries, there are too many dangerous developments that have to be curtailed. I accept that that’s not easy to do, but I think it’s essential. And I do think it’s undermining the game.

Q: How?

A: I think it is one of the reasons—I can’t prove it—one of the big developments in hockey in the past generation or two has been the decline of participation in hockey. You know, when I was a boy playing very poorly for the Leaside Lions . . .

Q: Your picture’s still on the wall at the Leaside arena, I hear . . .

A: It wasn’t there at the time I played, believe me, it was put up much later. Nobody remembered me then! I was one of, probably of my school chums, two-thirds, three-quarters who played organized hockey. When my son was playing, it was a fraction. And I do think that image and risks of injury and violence—and pressures to play early at highly competitive levels where those are risks—have increasingly discouraged it from being a mass-participation sport to being an elite-participation sport, even at a very young age, and I think this is very dangerous for hockey.

Q: So what in particular do you do about it?

A: Well, I think issues of violence do have to be tackled. I think there are organizational things on the ground authorities could be doing to encourage participation. We have to make sure hockey appeals to new immigrant groups. Their participation is quite low. I would be looking to do something about that.

Q: One thing you mentioned is that people are surprised, given what they know about Canada, that hockey is such a rugged game. Would it be fair to say that one of the things you’re trying to point out in the book is that Canadians are different than some of the official historical images we have? That we are passionate and rugged people?

A: I was going to say there are several different interpretations and explanations, and that, obviously, our government believes—Canada is rugged and assertive, but look, compared to a hundred or so years ago, we were a backwater; this is a privileged country now, one of the most privileged on Earth, and obviously, we have lives that are so much easier and [with] much higher standards, whether it’s the workplace or in society generally, where our beliefs in how people should be treated and a belief of congeniality and an acceptance of fair treatment of people is just so much higher than in those days. It’s hard to make comparisons.

Q: Last question: The book took about 10 years, start to finish?

A: Yeah, something like that. I probably spent five to six years doing the reading and research, and about a year and half writing, and then, after we signed the contract, a year writing a revised edition.

Q: Would you do it again?

A: If you asked me this last year, I would have said, “No, I’ve had enough.” For the immediate future, I’ve had some fun doing it, but it’s been a long go. I think in the immediate future, what spare time I have I probably will turn to some other pursuits, just for variety.

Q: Thank you, Prime Minister.