In his initial description of John Ross Robertson, the de facto “father of the Ontario Hockey Association” after Robertson wrestled control of the fledging amateur hockey organization from its original founding board, Stephen J. Harper calls him “nothing if not complex”.
A more succinct description Harper could have used for Robertson? “Huge asshole” comes to mind. Robertson acts as the primary antagonist in Harper’s new book A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey. He’s shown, through numerous primary sources (mainly newspapers of the day) as a figure attempting to keep popular sports in the domain of the elite and railing against everything from play-for-pay athletes to the French. He used his newspaper, the popular Toronto Telegram, to cackle with glee at the struggles of businessmen and players attempting to create a stable professional hockey team within Toronto and be able to compete for the Stanley Cup with teams in cities like Ottawa and Montreal, whose colder climates made hockey a more viable sport in the days before indoor artificial surfaces were common.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I was offered a review copy of this book, but I said “yes” to the opportunity to review it as soon as I got the message. The subject matter is of moderate interest to me, I suppose, but I was more curious as to what Harper’s narrative style is like. A review in the Globe said the book “reads a bit like a PhD thesis”, which I can’t quibble with. The book is several accounts of the formation of various hockey organizations in Toronto in the 1900s and is complete if nothing else. There’s minimal editorial voice or comment on the actions of the contemporary characters, but the way the sources are presented make it clear that the reader is meant to sympathize with the characters behind the professional teams like Alexander Miln and Bruce Ridpath. Their personal struggles and challenges are more vividly described than Robertson’s, perhaps because Miln and Ridpath were not only going up against the athletic gentlemen in control of Canada’s early sporting bodies, but also the newspapers (whose sports sections were run by major figures representing amateur sport) that looked for any chance to bring down the cause of the earliest professional teams.
The title of the tome, or at least a part of it, being The Forgotten Leafs is a bit of a misnomer. That’s in reference to the Toronto Blue Shirts, the Stanley Cup Champions of 1914 and first ever national champions from the Queen City*. Much of the narrative focuses on the Toronto Professionals, or Garnet & Greys, that were managed by Miln in the early run of Ontario’s first professional pro league. The book is chock-full of newspaper accounts of the day and the story is almost told entirely through those accounts, so you get a sense of what it was like to be in the stands or on the ice. At 286 pages, you’ve covered everything from the moral superiority of amateur sport, the defection of mercenary players to Northern and Western leagues, the difficulty in competing with the dominant Montreal Wanderers and Ottawa Senators, and the difficulty in finding ice surfaces. Also, since it’s hockey, we get into debates about violence, fighting, and how we can change the rules to create more offence.
There’s a lot of meat, but the meat may not interest you if you’re not otherwise into hockey or history. While reading, I drew parallels from the pro-amateur characters arguments against professionalizing the sport with the modern-day concerns about paying college athletes in the United States. Ironically, a direct descendant of the OHA, the modern day Ontario Hockey League, is very unapologetic when it comes to pilfering players from the NCAA. There are several players currently in the OHL that broke commitments to play American college hockey, amidst a swirl of rumours on the way those squads coerced players to break those commits.
According to the acknowledgements section, it was under editor Roy MacGregor’s guidance that Harper extended the timeline of the book to end in the spring of 2014, and it’s probably good he did, because the payoff of the book comes in later chapters as you begin to see how everything in the earlier chapters intertwines with the more commonly-known traits of hockey history.
So the early part of the book sort of drags, and the chapters and sections are very long compared to a lot of other non-fiction books. I don’t think that Harper is an interesting enough writer to really capture the attention of a non-hockey buff for pages of information without breaks. That said, Harper’s pretty good at pulling clever quotes from contemporary newspapers, but there’s only one original joke written by him. A caption of a picture of the early Stanley Cup (which was just the bowl) Harper quips “It’s a safe bet the early champs found it a lot easier to hoist over their heads”.
Still, if you’re invested in this stuff at all, there’s a lot of detail about the early founders of hockey, and many of their names are recognizable to current fans, although not a lot is known about them since hockey organizations sort of mythologized these characters as the years progressed. The John Ross Robertson Cup is still presented to the champions of the OHL each year, and I doubt the current OHL brass enjoys trumpeting up the fact that Robertson sort of weaselled his way into a permanent executive position on the OHA board without election and the newspaper he ran took a very firm stance against women’s right to vote. Again, bit of an asshole.
* – Harper uses nicknames when referring to cities an awful lot.
Here’s the Amazon page for the book. I’m sure it will also appear in fine bookstores everywhere.