Canada's leader on Canada's game
Canadian Prime Minister says nation will be glued to Olympic hockey tournament
Canada reaching gold-medal game on home ice would be huge, but not political
Harper has explored how development of game has mirrored that of the country
Michael Farber spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as part of his Olympic hockey preview for Sports Illustrated. The following is an exclusive excerpt of their conversation that didn't run in the magazine.
SI.com: How much pressure will Canada's men's hockey team be facing if it plays in the gold medal game?
Harper: It would be incredible pressure. I can't offhand think of anything in any country where any team would be under such universal expectation of a gold and nothing less ... practically from four years before the event. It's a big deal, to all of us.
SI.com: A French philosopher wrote that to understand the heart and mind of America, you had to understand baseball. Is that true of hockey and Canada?
Harper: There are parallels. You have in both cases a sport that was developed uniquely within that society, recognizing of course that these are also, in a sense, invented societies, coming into existence in recorded history. The country has been far and away the leading exponent of that sport, although I would say with hockey in Canada, it's probably even more intense than baseball in the United States as baseball in the United States plausibly has other competitors -- football, basketball.
Although there are important sports in Canada -- our own football, lacrosse -- nothing does compete with hockey. It's on a different plane, to the extent where, rightly or wrongly, people see these sports as deeply reflective of the character of the nation [and] certainly deeply reflective of the sports culture of the nation. And sports culture is an important part of any nation. You can say soccer in many countries [is] just as important but ... nobody has a national claim to soccer the way Canada has a national claim to hockey or the United States has a national claim to baseball. They define the country in a unique way.
SI.com: What does hockey say about the Canadian character?
Harper: It says, first and foremost, we're a northern country. It's an important part of our character. I was recently chatting about hockey with [Russia] President Medvedev. And, you know, we're the two coldest countries on earth, and not by coincidence, the two best hockey countries. Fairly consistently. It does say that. I think it also says something about the character. Hockey is a fast, aggressive, tough sport and that's an important part of the Canadian psychology and history. It's sometimes forgotten because Canadians are thought of as peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant -- which I think we are -- but that's not inconsistent with tough and aggressive and ambitious, which is also part of the national character.
The other thing I should mention about hockey is this: From the fairly early days, [it was] culturally cross-cutting as well. It's English and French. It's pretty well all regions of the country. Ethnic communities. One of the first things you see [is] immigrants start to belong to Canadian society when their kids start to come to the hockey rink. Then the parents start to integrate with the other parents. It crosses social class lines. So it's a great common denominator. It really is.
SI.com: Do you think a gold-medal game will be the most important match ever played on Canadian ice?
Harper: I'd go back to the '72 [Summit] Series [against the Soviet Union]. Probably the second game in Toronto. My Dad told me [the Summit Series] was sort of like the experience of the Allies in 1940, feeling as soon as the shots were fired this thing would be over [but then] find we're scrambling out of Dunkirk. This was very similar.
I remember the debates at the time: The issue wasn't whether Canada was going to win the series or win every game. The issue was whether the Soviets were going to score a goal. And all of a sudden, we were blown out in the first game [in Montreal]. So the second game was really about whether Canada would be competitive. So it was do or die. And the national psyche was at stake here, I think, in a much different way than the gold-medal game.
I don't want to de-emphasize it. [It's] certainly one of the two or three most important games on Canadian ice, no doubt about it. But that said, we know now that we're facing other good teams. It's a different situation ... the Canada-Soviet series had an overarching reality of Cold War confrontation as well, which really nothing today can replicate.
SI.com: Is there a chance hockey will overwhelm everything else that happens to Canadian athletes in Vancouver?
Harper: The hockey, particularly the men's hockey, does risk dominating not just coverage but dominating Canadians' impressions of the Olympics, which would be unfortunate because Canada, really from 1988 on when we first hosted the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada has really grown and grown as an Olympic power. I'm not sure most Canadians are aware of how close we are to the top in overall winter sports performance now. It is very much a risk. Even as a hockey fan, I hope that won't be the case. The Olympics is about more than hockey. And Canada, we're not just hosting it. We're going to be a major player across the board.
SI.com: Has your research into hockey given you greater insight into the country?
Harper: It's given me some political insights, none necessarily all that relevant to running the government on a day-to-day basis. First of all, my interest is in the early decades of the modern sport, [the] 1870s onward until the First World War ... there's very little other than newspapers. There are very few accounts. There are a limited numbers of photographs. There's no motion-picture footage. A few memoirs, but pretty much all you have is the printed word in the newspaper.
But it makes it apparent that the rage and the excitement with which this new sport -- and you have to remind people that it was new, from about 1875 on -- [that] swept the country was really a phenomenon. And ... although it is rarely overtly political, you definitely see the development of a national consciousness that did not exist before.
People forget that in 1867, Canada's national consciousness was very fragmentary. There was a strong set of regional identities because these had been separate colonies. And of course there was a wider attachment to the British Empire for many Canadians, especially English Canadians, the ultimate locus of their greater loyalty. The development of hockey is not, by any means the only [factor], but it is an important part of the development of a uniquely Canadian identity and a uniquely Canadian sense of belonging in a community across the country.
SI.com: Given a choice, would you be serving as Prime Minister or playing in the NHL?
Harper: It's probably terrible to say, but any Canadian boy, if he could play in the NHL, would play in the NHL.