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Puck Daddy

How Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper uses his love of hockey for political gain

Harrison Mooney
Puck Daddy

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Stephen Harper congratulates Daniel Alfredsson on his 1000th career game - Getty Images

There wasn't a single hockey-related story from 2011 I found more amusing than Prime Minister Stephen Harper's attempt to get tickets for the Winnipeg Jets home opener. The outcry over a report that Harper had requested 14 tickets to the game (and only been given two, in such high demand were they) was hilarious, as was the ancillary outcry that he might not have to pay full price out of his own pocket like everybody else.

The notion that the Prime Minister of Canada's attempt to score primo Jets tickets was an abuse of power makes me laugh even now. In case it wasn't already obvious, Canada, my country of origin, takes its hockey pretty seriously.

Of course, that's exactly why Harper, the leader of Canada's Conservative Party, had to be at that game. Missing the Jets home opener would have run contrary to the hockey-obsessed persona that Harper and his political strategists have been constructing for him for years.

Long accused of being robotic, cold, and unapproachable, the Conservative Party has worked to humanize their leader by playing up his love of hockey to an absurd degree.

Oh, you didn't know that the prime minister looooooves hockey? He's in attendance for as many games as possible. He's a member of the Society for International Hockey Research. He's been writing a hockey book for eight years, apparently has hockey trivia contests at the office, isn't above dropping in on the occasional street game, and even wrote the foreword for Paul Henderson's recent book on the 1972 Summit Series.

As Lawrence Martin wrote on Tuesday, he's become the hockey prime minister. From the Globe & Mail:

[...] Mr. Harper is changing the sports-politics dynamic. He is moving big-time into our hockey space. He's on hockey platforms, promoting the sport, every chance he gets. His government renovates rinks across the land, gives tax credits for kids' hockey equipment. And soon, the big deal: He's bringing out his very own hockey book, a volume on professional hockey in its early days.

It's all part of his populist pitch, the new patriotism he is trying to instill. It's also a personal image enhancer. As Prime Minister, he has found it hard to connect on a personal level. What better way than being the hockey prime minister? The country, egged on by saturation media coverage, is overdosing on the sport.

Overdosing doesn't even begin to describe it. Hockey is Canada's religion, and considering the way that American politicians exploit religion for political gain, it's no wonder Harper makes a point of being seen at so many hockey events.

It's the American equivalent of being photographed at church.

I'm not the first person to point out that, true fan or otherwise, Harper's interest in hockey is politically motivated. Steven Chase noted that the Prime Minister's decision to participate in a game of road hockey during the April 2011 election was fully calculated. From the Globe and Mail:

Compare and contrast: the very day that Michael Ignatieff was unveiling his election platform inside an Ottawa hotel, Stephen Harper was promising new tax breaks for sports fees and playing a street hockey game for the cameras.

It appeared a deliberate effort to differentiate himself from Mr. Ignatieff, a man the Conservatives delight in trying to paint as elitist and out of touch.

TV cameras in tow, Mr. Harper ventured to a suburban Ottawa parking lot to play pick-up street hockey with 30 kids and local Tory candidate Pierre Poilievre.

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Harper attends the Stanley Cup Final - Getty Images

In other words, it wasn't just a game of pick-up hockey; it was a photo op.

See, Harper's being sold to us as the cool prime minister. While the other guys are out detailing boring plans and being all political and bookish, ol' Stevie Harper's just playin' some road puck or takin' in a game because he loves it.

It's not a terrible strategy in this country (and it's certainly better than playing up Harper's creepy love for cats), but it is terribly transparent.

Consider Harper's hockey book, which he's been working on for eight years. I don't doubt that it's real, especially since it's slated to come out some time this year, but his 2004 start date conveniently coincides with his election as the leader of the Conservative Party. Think the new party's political strategists thought it might endear him to the hockey-loving populace if he said he was writing a hockey book?

I don't have a problem with Harper loving hockey, but I cringe at the direction this whole scheme is headed. In Martin's piece, he mentioned that beloved Canadian politician Pierre Elliott Trudeau wasn't much of a hockey guy. As with any time someone says an unkind word about Trudeau, this necessitated a defense. From John Geddes, writing for Maclean's:

[...] I think Martin went off side in dismissing Pierre Trudeau's shinny credentials, asserting that Trudeau preferred individual to team sports, and "could barely tell a hockey stick from a tennis racket."

In fact, Trudeau biographer John English writes, in 2007's Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume One: 1919-1968, concerning Trudeau's schools days at Montréal's College Jean-de-Brébeuf: "About sports, he never complained. He became the captain of the hockey team, played lacrosse, and went on ski excursions."

Geddes's piece was informative, but I chuckled at the notion that Trudeau's hockey connection needed to be clarified. See, with the disclosure that Trudeau wasn't much of a hockey man came the insinuation that there was something wrong with him, that he wasn't quite as "Canadian" as we believed. Thankfully, Geddes was able to refute that.

But if past politicians' appreciation for hockey now needs to be defended, future politicians will find themselves in the same predicament. I fear that an overweening love of the game is on its way to becoming a requirement in Canadian politics, and that's a scary thought. I cringe at the possibility of an election that turns on which guy loves hockey the most.

We've seen, with the recent controversy over Randy Cunneyworth's monolingualism, how absurd things can get when hockey gets dragged into the Canadian political arena. The fact that the nation appears to be headed for more of this is unsettling.

Follow Harrison Mooney on Twitter at @HarrisonMooney

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