Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey

by Stephen J. Harper

If A Great Game had been written by someone other than the sitting prime minister of Canada, it would have debuted with little fanfare. But because Stephen Harper (or Stephen J. Harper, as his name appears on the book’s jacket) is the author, and the book has been eight years in the making, the anticipation has been significant. If advance word were to be believed, A Great Game would be a definitive hockey book, as important as Ken Dryden’s seminal shinny tome The Game or Peter Gzowski’s The Game of Our Lives.

Despite all the hype, the end result is disappointing. The book reads like a long-winded essay or thesis from a hockey historian – which, as a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Harper happens to be. Much of the information comes from newspaper articles, websites, institutional publications, films, and television. Every source is meticulously annotated. It’s almost like reading about the evolution of the Canadian Constitution.

The principal player in the story is Ontario Hockey Association president John Ross Robertson, founding publisher of the Toronto Evening Telegram, who staunchly pushed back against the game’s change from amateur to professional. Toronto fans wanted a pro team of their own to compete for the Stanley Cup alongside Montreal, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. In 1906, the Toronto Professional Hockey Club, a team that later morphed into the Maple Leafs, was born. Harper, who grew up in Toronto and played hockey at a young age, portrays Robertson as a hero, believing he and his sympathizers had long predicted how professionalism would erode the amateur ethos.

Harper notes that some critics suggest pro hockey today is about wealthy owners and players concerned more with greed than developing the game. But if that’s Harper’s own belief, he doesn’t definitively say so. The powerful voice he projects as Canada’s PM is rather muted as an author. Given a platform to talk strongly about Canada’s game, his thoughts and opinions are far too conservative.

Harper writes that sport is the ultimate reality show because “try as some might to write the script, the drama has a way of finding its own, unpredictable path.” Coincidentally, the book’s release comes at a time when Harper is facing a political scandal. Harper began work on A Great Game in 2004 as a “distraction from the hectic and obsessive nature of political life.” Nine years later, his experience as Canada’s leading political figure has become far more intriguing than his history of the rise of professional hockey in Toronto.