A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs
and the Rise of Professional Hockey
By Stephen J. Harper
Simon & Schuster Canada
352 pages; $34.99
By Gene Warner
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Can anyone imagine Barack Obama writing a book about the history of the Washington Capitals?
Or Vladimir Putin penning an ode to the Moscow Dynamo team?
Preposterous, both of them.
But check out the author of “A Great Game,” detailing the origins of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.
His name is Stephen J. Harper, hardly a household name in the Buffalo area.
But he happens to be the prime minister of Canada. The current one.
Harper didn’t just wake up one day and decide to write a book about the origins of professional hockey in Toronto and across Canada. He’s a member of the Society of International Hockey Research, with a particular interest in the game’s early decades, according to the book jacket’s inside cover.
That, though, may not be the most interesting thing about this book.
This reader couldn’t get enough of the description of the game back then.
Hockey was played with seven players: goalie, center, left wing, right wing, cover (an offensive-minded defenseman), point (stay-at-home defenseman) and rover. Teams carried no more than two substitute players for the whole game, played in two 30-minute halves. Forward passing was not allowed, and there were no slap shots or red or blue lines. The ice was natural, with any Southern Ontario thaw threatening to delay a game. Ice conditions often were awful, as was the lighting.
And goalies, wearing cricket pads, weren’t allowed to go down to block a shot; doing so led to a penalty, which they had to serve.
The book also puts hockey’s popularity in Canada into some historical perspective. Hard to imagine, but it wasn’t the national pastime in the late 19th century. As Harper writes, “Canada needed a sport that would speak to its winter soul the way lacrosse had captured its summer heart.”
Harper goes to great extremes – maybe too great – to chronicle the never-ending battle between amateurism and the creeping evil of professionalism that loomed ever-present over hockey’s rise in the early 20th century. That’s the strongest issue woven through this book, and only avid hockey historians might appreciate such detail.
This was a fierce battle. For example, the proponents of amateurism, who sound like a self-righteous, holier-than-thou crew, considered a professional not only anyone who ever had played for money, but also anyone who ever had played with or against someone playing for money.
And the presumption of innocence was nowhere to be found; any player accused of being a professional was one.
Those involved in this battle sound as if they were fighting some kind of holy war. Ontario Hockey Association president John Ross Robertson, the lead crusader for amateurism, even borrowed from Abraham Lincoln’s message about freedom and slavery, saying that the OHA “cannot honorably be half amateur and half professional.”
Toronto newspapers, for the most part, were decidedly against professionalism, and they weren’t shy about revealing their bias. One account labeled a game between Toronto and Berlin (Kitchener) professionals a “joke encounter” and “burlesque,” with the level of play not even rising to that of poor intermediate hockey. As The Globe wrote of Toronto star Newsy Lalonde: “When a local crowd hisses and hoots the captain of the local team for brutal attacks on opposing players, ... his usefulness in promoting the game of hockey seems to have reached the limit.”
Readers wanting a detailed look at the roots of today’s professional hockey will love this book. For others, there’s some heavy sledding.
But this book should be judged as a piece of history, painstakingly researched, not as a folksy, breezy best-seller.
In that way, Harper has succeeded.
Gene Warner is a Buffalo News reporter and an assistant coach for the City Honors/Cardinal O’Hara varsity club hockey team.