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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Great Game’

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By Stephen J. Harper
Simon & Schuster Canada, $34.99, 368 pages

It's a rare achievement for a world leader to write a book while in office. It's a rarer achievement still when the book isn't a personal memoir, but rather concentrates on a radically different topic.

Stephen Harper, Canada's 22nd prime minister, has done just that. Over the course of seven years, he has created the ultimate labor of love: a volume about his favorite sport.

Mr. Harper's book, "A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & the Rise of Professional Hockey," is a well-written and tightly researched history of Canada's national pastime in the early 20th century. Aided in the process by the steady editorial hand of Roy Macgregor, a Toronto Globe and Mail sports columnist, readers will learn how the "forgotten Leafs" of yesteryear led to the eventual rise of today's Toronto Maple Leafs.

I've known Mr. Harper since 1996, and worked as one of his speechwriters. He's one of the most intelligent, well-versed and politically astute individuals ever to lead Canada. He loves crafting words, sentences and paragraphs. Mr. Harper will spend arduous amounts of time agonizing over certain sections, writing and rewriting them until he deems they're just right. His quest to achieve literary perfection, even when we know that nothing can ever be perfect, deserves much admiration.

These similar principles can be found in the book. It's an impressive examination of a different time in Canada's history — and hockey's past. Moreover, it's a battle between two cities (Toronto versus Montreal) and two sports (amateur versus professional hockey). Mr. Harper writes that it was "an extraordinary chapter in Canada's social history" and "a sort of witch hunt against professional sports so intense and so divisive."

When it came to early Canadian hockey supremacy, Montreal stood alone. It was home to "ice hockey's first formal game" in 1875, as well the first Stanley Cup champions, the Montreal Hockey Club (or Montreal AAA), in 1893. As Mr. Harper points out, "Hockey's slower emergence in the Ontario capital was not an accident of history ... the winters are significantly milder than Montreal's and given to much more frequent thaws." Even so, the differences between the two cities were less than subtle.

"A Great Game" examines the start of Toronto's hockey boom. There were stark differences of opinion between amateur and professional sports. In particular, the Ontario Hockey Association's message was clear: "The war against pro hockey in Toronto had only just begun." The city's first professional hockey team, the "Torontos" — or, as they were "at times sarcastically" called, "Toronto Professionals" — definitely had a rough start. They still provided their fan base with some hope after a 9-8 loss to the Kenora Thistles on Jan. 25, 1907 — who had just stunned the mighty Montreal Wanderers days before to win the Stanley Cup. "As far the city's dreams of a first Stanley Cup were concerned," Mr. Harper writes, "the Torontos were also the only choice."

Mr. Harper uses a fine-toothed comb to detail the Professionals' rise in stature and respect. They won the first Ontario Professional Hockey League championship with a 10-2 record. Great players such as Bruce Ridpath and Newsy Lalonde propelled this team to the Cup challenge round against the Wanderers on March 14, 1908. They played their hearts out, losing a tight 6-4 game. Yet in spite of "their incredible brush with eternity terminated by the final bell," the Professionals "emerged as the toast of the hockey world."

Sadly, the nearly three-year-old "Toronto Hockey Club was no more" after the 1909 season. Amateur hockey, led enthusiastically by newspaper publisher John Ross Robertson, was on the rise again. Various local teams, such as the Toronto Eatonias, "a group of employees of the city's largest department store," tried to win over the city's support.

It didn't work. The old National Hockey Association brought in two Toronto franchises for the 1912-13 season: the Tecumsehs and the Blueshirts. It was the latter team that would have the bigger impact, beating the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup in 1914. Toronto's hockey lore had finally found its first champion.

No hockey banner for this groundbreaking team exists, however. When the NHL's Toronto Arenas (today's Toronto Maple Leafs) "effectively confiscated" the NHA's Blueshirts in 1917, it was "orphaned by history." Ergo, the Leafs "pretend not to have the origins they really do" and "Toronto's first Stanley Cup club has been largely forgotten."

That's no longer the case. Thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's impressive book of early hockey history in Toronto, the "forgotten Leafs" will be forgotten no more.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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