Hockey and the prime ministers: Harper vs. Trudeau

Don’t dismiss Trudeau’s shinny credentials, writes John Geddes

Over at the Globe and Mail, Lawrence Martin writes today that Stephen Harper is the first prime minister to use his passion for hockey to political advantage. Certainly Harper’s plan to finally publish his much-discussed book on early professional hockey history should allow him to stake a claim to being our most hockey-wonkish PM.

But I think Martin went off side in dismissing Pierre Trudeau’s shinny credentials, asserting that Trudeau preferred individual to team sports, and “could barely tell a hockey stick from a tennis racket.”

In fact, Trudeau biographer John English writes, in 2007’s Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume One: 1919-1968, concerning Trudeau’s schools days at Montréal’s College Jean-de-Brébeuf: “About sports, he never complained. He became the captain of the hockey team, played lacrosse, and went on ski excursions.”

Harper, by comparison, admits he was “pretty marginal” during a brief period as a kid player, and still doesn’t skate well, although his professed enthusiasm for road hockey, I would submit, counts as an entirely valid and admirable variation on the national obsession.

As for political overlap with hockey, there’s rarely been a more noteworthy example than Trudeau’s July 14, 1972 letter to Charles Hay, then president of Hockey Canada, concerning the Canadian lineup for what would be that fall’s epic Canada-Russia hockey series.

Trudeau wrote to Hay on an issue that I certainly remember (I was 11 years old at the time) as having been deeply upsetting: the decision by the NHL establishment to block Bobby Hull, who had defected to the upstart World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets, from playing on Team Canada.

“You are aware of the intense concern,” Trudeau wrote, “which I share with millions of Canadians in all parts of our country, that Canada should be represented by its best hockey players, including Bobby Hull… in the forthcoming series with the Soviet Union.” He concludes with appropriate solemnity on this urgent matter of state: “In making whatever arrangements may be called for, I would ask you to keep the best interests of Canada in mind and to make sure they are respected and served.”

Of course, the Golden Jet was excluded despite Trudeau’s astute expression of grave misgivings as General Manager in Chief. Still, even if he was ignored, Trudeau’s letter ranks as arguably the highest-level political intervention in a crucial hockey decision in Canadian history.

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