Book reviews / History / Non fiction

Book review: A Great Game

About halfway through this book, I looked at the author’s inset and realised that it was written by Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Oops. It apparently took 8 years to write, with lots of other people helping with the research. I don’t doubt that he wrote a lot of it, because the language feels so middle of the road, the narrative structured in a way not to offend.I bought this back when we were in Canada last year, as it was about hockey and about my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, I picked it up without much thought.

So how is it? Well, it’s about as good as you’d expect. Here follows my snobbish digression as professional historian in training.

I think the best bits of the book were the connections back to the larger social history and development of the professional nature of sports in general. There’s some fascinating stuff here about the changing nature of Canada, the booms of the mining towns reflected in the structure, pay and teams of early professional hockey. However, these were rare and quick glimpses, often added to just move ahead and explain team roster changes.

The worst bits were basically when Harper was being a forensic hockey commentator, with play by plays of the game or the ins and outs of player trading dominated the narrative. I kind of imagined it as Hockey Night in Canada but with the quiet narration and polite discourse of Gardeners’ Question Time. Basically, not really gripping though very informative on details that most of use don’t care about.

The amateur historian nature of the book shines through, with Harper littering the book with what ifs and trying to insert drama where there really wasn’t any. It’s not dull but the language and pacing is very average. There’s basically very little personality in the book, it’s an encyclopaedia of names and games, with occasional glimpses at the wider historical situation. Near the end, the creation of the National Hockey League is given only a few pages, again framed against personality conflicts. Surely there would be more than that? The sometimes mentioned influence of industrialists would have been a more interesting digression.

Basically, either be popular history or be an academic. The half-way attempt doesn’t do the subject any favours.

Despite that, I do like the last argument, that both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens could pay tribute to those teams that were their forerunners. As Harper states, there’s one Stanley Cup banner that doesn’t hang from the Air Canada Centre – the one that that the Toronto Blue Shirts won in 1914.

I did enjoy the ridiculousness of the whole history of early professional hockey as well as the conflicts between amateurs and professionals. It was all a bit daft in hindsight. However, I think I’d rather find a better book on it, as I don’t quite trust the history as presented. For example, Harper only mentions political affiliation when they’re Conservatives. You end up wondering what other angles are presented. Another example is using John Ross Robertson as a big hook of the narrative. No doubt he was an important player but how relevant were the antics of the Ontario Hockey Association when the more professional leagues were starting up? But perhaps I just thought he was an ass-hat as being anti-women’s suffrage.

Should you read it? I reckon the interest level needed is either people who love the Toronto Maple Leafs or just obsessed with early hockey. It’s fine as a amateur history, but there are no doubt better books out there. It did make me want to go to the Hockey Hall of Fame again though, so there’s that.

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