Stephen Harper shoots… Harper scores!

By Ryan Pike

Since he became Canada’s 22nd prime minister in 2006, Stephen Harper has developed a reputation amongst his opponents for being sneaky. Granted, few in politics have gotten far by telegraphing their maneuvering, but Harper has seemingly turned political behaviour into a modern art form. While many of his predecessors utilized obscure verbiage, intellectual smoke and mirrors and outright lying to stay in power, Harper has gone a bit off-book.

He’s used hockey.

Growing up in Toronto, Harper developed a keen interest in Canada’s favourite sport. As he grew older, he became a hockey historian and is currently working on a book in his spare time. Utilizing his life’s passion, Harper has added a hidden weapon to his political arsenal — he knows when Canadians will and won’t be paying attention.

Harper has made a few controversial moves as prime minister, but he’s timed them well. The announcement of the first prorogation of Parliament back in December 2008 corresponded with one of the busiest nights of National Hockey League play that month, including key games for teams from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The move ensured that the announcement only got a certain amount of airtime and room in the news media, as newspapers and television stations cater their coverage to what Canadians really care about — hockey.

That’s not all. This past winter, Harper struck again. The second prorogation was announced on December 30, 2009, the date that Hockey Canada announced the roster for the men’s Olympic team. Amidst the smiling faces of Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby and the prospect of Olympic gold, the prorogation was relegated to a secondary focus. Similarly, the throne speech this month fell on the same day as the NHL’s trade deadline.

To his credit, Harper doesn’t just relegate bad news to days where hockey holds sway. His surprise appearance at a National Arts Centre gala in October 2009 happened to be the first Friday night of the NHL season. While Harper’s musical stylings went over well with the crowd, both in Ottawa and nationally, placing it on that particular night ensured that had his music been embarrassing, most of the news would have been about hockey.

There are several troubling things about Harper co-opting Canada’s national pastime for political gain. On one hand, the move seems slightly underhanded and seemingly shows that even the prime minister buys into the national stereotype of Canadians as beer-drinkin’ hosers. On the other hand, it shows that Canadians have become so disengaged from their own government that they don’t see through this seemingly-blatant smokescreen. Worse yet, we’re allowing a public figure to publicly support both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames. That, my friends, is heresy.

You don’t get too far in life by being stupid. Harper’s gone from being a fresh-faced Toronto Maple Leafs fan to prime minister of Canada, in no small part because he’s actually pretty smart. Under his watch, the Conservative Party has become a well-oiled communications machine with a seemingly simple mantra: “If you have to announce something that could make the party look bad, do it when everyone’s watching hockey.”

Maybe the prime minister should create a series of national holidays that correspond with the Stanley Cup playoffs. Forget about Afghan detainees and prorogations — all Canadians really care about is hockey.

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