We don’t know what it’s called, and the publisher remains a mystery. It’s supposed to be on shelves this year, but that’s as much as we know about a publication date. The author has talked to the Ethics Commissioner, we know, and the money’s all going to charity. What it’s actually about? We only have the barest detail on that, so far. And yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long-anticipated hockey book might already be the most reviewed new title of 2012.
We’ve been hearing about the book for years, of course, since 2006, at least. It came up, for example, in his year-end interview with Canadian Press, right after he confirmed that the environment was now one of his tip-top priorities, after years of Liberal governments having ignored the problem, rhubarb, carbon capture, rhubarb. He said he tried to work on his hockey book for 15 minutes every day, though his pace had slackened lately. He was, after all, a busy man. Whatever spare time he had was devoted to hockey reading — though, of course, he did read with his children, too. “What was it called, The Blue Moon? Oh, I’ve forgotten the full title, we just finished that. Artemis Fowl. It’s a book Ben and I are reading. It includes the attempts of the pixie Belinda to take over the world. It’s very interesting.”
The early days of professional hockey in Toronto are supposed to be Harper’s focus, and indeed that’s what he was on about, late in ’06, when The Toronto Star published, front-page, a brief Harper guide to the beginnings of the city’s hockey.
Over at http://www.conservative.ca, they’ve got the passion for hockey listed under 10 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER, but it’s never been any secret, has it? That he’s a big curling fan, used to collect coins and “owns numerous atlases:” that’s news. “A consummate hockey dad, he can often be seen cheering Ben on at local rinks or joining his son in the stands for the occasional NHL match-up:” not so much.
Harper’s hockey enthusiasm has been applauded and mocked, admired and doubted. TSN has been glad, over the years, of the novelty of having a prime minister offer between-periods analysis at the World Junior broadcasts. Here’s Maclean’s columnist Scott Feschuk in 2009, offering a sneaking peek at what a first draft of Stephen Harper’s Book About Hockey might look like:
Chapter Seven: Theories on Victory. The Vancouver
Canucks can never win the Stanley Cup — because if
they were going to win the Stanley Cup, they would
have already won the Stanley Cup by now. It’s just
like what I said about the recession we aren’t not having
To feed the suspicion that it’s all just cynical political posturing, there was the report, ahead of the 2006 federal election, that the Conservatives had gone to the U.S. for campaigning counsel, seeking the advice of Republican spinster Frank Luntz. He was the man who told George W. Bush, famously, to do what he could to confuse the public on global warming; Harper would do well to distract Canadian voters with the national pastime. “If there is some way to link hockey to what you all do, I would try to do it,” Luntz advised.
The prime minister does pay his dues, it should be said, as a member of the Society of International Hockey Research, a fellowship of hockey historians, writers, statisticians, academics, and fans that includes (full disclosure) members of the staff here at puckstruck.com. In 2009, Harper presided over a SIHR-sponsored unveiling of an Ottawa monument to recognize James Creighton as the father of modern hockey, and he has subsequently written a letter in support of the effort to hoist Creighton into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 2007, not long after he made an appearance at the SIHR AGM in Ottawa, Harper flew to Afghanistan to visit Canadian troops stationed there and, while he was in the neighbourhood, drop in on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As reported at the time by the non-domestic press, the gifts he bore included “a pint-sized bodysuit of a top ice hockey side” (a miniature Ottawa Senators uniform) for Karzai’s newborn son, Mirwais. Harper said he wanted to help the boy start out life in the right way. “Well,” Karzai replied, “I would like him to play hockey as soon as he can walk on his feet.”
This is what, I guess, Harper was talking about in the 5,000-word foreword he contributed last fall to How Hockey Explains Canada (Triumph, 2011) by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson. “Hockey is one of our greatest exports,” he wrote there, in a wide-ranging piece that also pegged out some more ground on his own interests:
I consider my area of hockey expertise, if you can call
it that, to extend from 1875 — which is the founding of
the modern sport — up to 1926 when the NHL consolidated
its control. My real focus within that span is the 1900-1910
period — the early professional era.
It’s long piece, a little plodding in its prose, fairly personal, and (surprise!) just a little bit political. He’s no great skater, he admits, and really counts himself more accomplished in the road game, which he used to play every weekend when he was Leader of the Opposition, living at Stornaway, but really hasn’t had time for since he moved over to Sussex Drive. He does have a “so-called hockey room upstairs” where he keeps “a veritable library of history books, including some short-run first editions” and autographed sweaters from Vladislav Tretiak and the 1967 Leafs. Favourite player as a kid? Dave Keon. (Later he loved Jari Kurri.) We learn (sorry, conservative.ca) that son Ben retired from hockey in 2009.
What would he change if he were the boss of NHL? Rinks would be bigger. The whole Sidney Crosby “thing,” as he calls it, has him “just furious.” I mean, did you see the hit that started it all in last year’s Winter Classic? The prime minister couldn’t believe it wasn’t a penalty. Never would have happened to Gretzky. “I’m mystified by it, but I hope that the powers that be wake up.” For half a sentence I thought this might be where Harper answered last September’s call from Maclean’s that he was the man to save hockey the way U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt saved football in the early 1900s. Could it be? Would he dare? But … sorry, no. If Harper has a vision for what the game needs, it’s not included here. “ You cannot allow this kind of thing to happen!” is as close as he comes before he moves on to what really matters: the annual Parliament Hill hockey game the Liberals and Conservatives used to play, which was great fun until the Liberals ruined it by cheating. “So we haven’t done that in the last couple of years.”
Assuming that this column isn’t in itself proof enough that lack of detail on the prime minister’s book isn’t enough to limit the coverage, a sampling of what you might have missed to date:
“So will he be Hemingway of the North?” wondered Mark Kennedy of Postmedia News. The prime minister’s “literary labour of love,” he went on, isn’t “expected to merely be a dry history of the game, but rather, a close look at the professionalization of the sport in the early 1990s.”
At The Dusty Bookcase, literary blogger Brian Busby (www.brianbusby.blogspot.com) applauded Harper’s determination in sticking with the writing over the years, knowing that he won’t be making any money: “I dare say, our prime minister understands something of what it is to be a writer in this country.”
Globe and Mail books columnist John Barber named the book as the 2012 literary event he was least excited about. “It will likely come wrapped in a flag and further insulated with charity tie-ins, all but daring the churlish to sneer. So let’s do it now before it’s too late. The chance that the book might actually be good is painful to contemplate.”
Novelist Nino Ricci penned a mock news item on his website (www.ninoricci.com), reporting that the rumour that “Prime Minister’s book will purportedly contain actual text.” And:
Sources inside the PMO say that promotional
efforts for Harper’s book will include an initiative
they are calling “One Country, One Book,” in
which every man, woman and child in the country
will be encouraged to buy and read what is officially
being referred to as “The Harper Book.” The project
is envisioned as a multi-year one.
“After all, it took the Prime Minister eight years to
write the thing,” said a spokesperson. “We’re
anticipating it might take that long for people to
actually read it.”
Busy Liberal strategist and book-writing scold Warren Kinsella (www.warrenkinsella.com) doesn’t believe Harper has a book at all. Why would he? If the p.m. said he was going to publish his book in 2006, which he did, he should have published it then. What’s his problem? Doesn’t he have 1,500 communications staffers working for his government? Kinsella himself has written 55,000 words since October, which Random House will be publishing in the fall. Hockey book? Ha. Kinsella’s not yet ready to call it bullshit quite yet, but soon, my friends, soon.