will the real paul henderson please stand up?

Political Slap Shots


The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 23, 2011 Comment/p. F9

There’s a point in every federal election campaign when the question comes up: how much of a slapshot do we demand of our prime minister?

We’re there now: this is it. If it feels all the more urgent this time, that’s because of the ominous news out of Moscow: Vladimir Putin has taken up hockey.

He didn’t used to play. As recently as February, the Russian prime minister couldn’t skate, apparently, but then in his willful way he pledged he’d learn and two months later, boom, there he was, big and red-sweatered, a righthand shot. He scored a goal. A good game, he said, “less traumatic” than soccer.

Sounds innocent enough, a happy photo op. But Putin is a politician, so everything he does has a purpose. He’s also Putin, the former KGB/FSB man: everything he does is more or less menacing. And, plus, this wasn’t just any ice Putin was skating on, it was Luzhniki Sports Palace ice, as in 1972, as in Henderson-and-Tretiak, as in we-were-always-going-to-win-and-so-that’s-what-we-did.

Remember in July, last year? Russian TU-95 long-range bombers buzzing up to Canadian air space? Hard to say what they intended, exactly, other than it didn’t seem friendly: as a senior Canadian military official noted at the time, it was “not the usual s**t.”

This is like that, a sort-of incursion on our sovereignty — probably. Putin was obviously upping some kind of ante here — chances are. Maybe not, but what if? At the very least, it confirms the doubt that’s always been there in our own hearts, the one that ticks and ticks away, telling us that 1972 decided nothing at all and never will.

Which brings us to the ballot-box question: which of our political leaders is best suited, hockey-wise, to face-off with the St. Petersburg Streak?

The answer, of course, is Lester Pearson.

The fact is, most of our 22 prime ministers never stickhandled a day in their life let alone scored a meaningful goal on the powerplay. That’s okay, we tell ourselves, no problem: we’re a tolerant people. R.B. Bennett sped down the wing? Not to worry: that’s what Howie Morenz was for. Pierre Trudeau preferred a canoe? Welcome to it: Jean Béliveau had him covered. For the rest, we’re content to extrapolate parliamentary personalities into hockey comparables, which is how we know that if Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a bit of an old-time Steve Yzerman, then Jean Chrétien was more of a mid-1980s Claude Lemieux.

Of course, with Pearson, we didn’t have to pretend: a brilliant lacrosse and baseball player, he was our only p.m. to have earned a legitimate hockey nickname: Herr Zigzag. “Sometimes,” he waxed, late in his life, “I would rather have played for the Toronto Maple Leafs than been prime minister of Canada.”

He probably could have done it, too. In 1921, as a student at Oxford, he starred for the Dark Blues on a European tour that included a rout of rivals Cambridge by 27-0 in just two periods — the third was called off for mercy.

He went on to play for Switzerland in the European Championships, and England wanted him to suit up for the 1924 Olympics. Also, during the Second World War, he was applauded on the front page of The Times for throwing a cricket ball 104 metres — farther than any man on record.

Of the current campaigners, they’ve all donned their Habs sweaters and said something or other about funding rinks in Quebec. None has appeared, so far, on skates, although Stephen Harper did get into a road hockey game in Ottawa where he scored, top shelf, on a nine-year-old. On the backhand, even. He surprised himself, it looked like.

Probably our best bet, if it comes to a straight face-off with Putin? Governor-General David Johnston is a former Harvard captain — though, who knows, constitutionally that might be a problem.

Putin having framed this whole thing in 1972 terms, maybe that’s the way to go. Who now, today, has the game-winning gumption to pounce on Phil Esposito’s rebound? Upon whom would Yvan Cournoyer throw himself in joy? Who’s our likeliest Paul Henderson here?

Jack Layton has a certain Mickey Redmondness, though that may just be the moustache. Gilles Duceppe would seem like an obvious Vic Hadfield, him or any of the other disgruntled players who declared their independence and left the team high and dry in Moscow. Elizabeth May, I guess, is your Bobby Hull — a formidable force, maybe, but no matter how much he wanted to play, he just couldn’t get on the team.

Michael Ignatieff played some hockey as a boy, and in his books he builds some compelling hockey lenses with which to look at the country. And if he finds himself cast in a largely denying role, as a lone figure, a little aloof, crouched and crease-bound, well, then I guess who else can he be but Ken Dryden — which is confusing, of course, since there’s already an actual Ken Dryden in the Liberal line-up.

Stephen Harper may never have been much of a skater (as he told Dominic Moore, then of the Leafs, in 2009), but we’ve never had a prime minister with so much hockey on his mind.

A student of the game, he’s often called, and it’s well-known that he’s been working on a history of the game in early Toronto since he took office. He shows up at Calgary Flames games, offers between-periods analysis on World Junior broadcasts. He probably didn’t need to be told, as he was in 2006 by ace American strategist Frank Luntz, that a good way to distract Canadian voters was to talk as much as possible about hockey: I think he’d already decided on that anyway.

This is a man, after all, who went to Afghanistan in 2007 and presented Hamid Karzai with what was described in the non-domestic press as “a pint-sized bodysuit of a top ice hockey side” — a miniature Ottawa Senators uniform. The Karzais, as it turned out, had a newborn son, Mirwais.  Harper said he wanted to help the boy start out life in the right way. “Well,” Karzai replied, as though he had votes to win in Vancouver Quadra, “I would like him to play hockey as soon as he can walk on his feet.”

As a politician, Stephen Harper has proved shrewd and skilled, with a mean streak wide as the blue-line. He takes bad penalties. A predatory centreman maybe you’d call him, two hands on his stick, and an eye on Valery Kharlamov’s ankle and whatever it takes to win. They have a phrase in Russian for this that may still be afloat in the air of the high slot at the Luzhniki: Bobby Clarke.