Book Review: A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & The Rise of Professional Hockey
By Stephen J. Harper
Reviewed by metalfoot
The title is, in my opinion, a bit of a misnomer, but it is, on the other hand, a fairly apt description of what the book is all about. Who was the first Toronto-based professional hockey team and what was their legacy to hockey? What was the interplay and dynamic between the professional and amateur hockey leagues over one hundred years ago? How did artificial ice and the mining boom in Northern Ontario affect the development of professional hockey? All these questions, and many more, are explored at some depth in this book.
Harper has definitely done some serious research. While not as footnote-happy as some historical books I have read, it is definitely thoroughly researched. The picture emerges of early professional hockey as being a sport in serious flux. The major players of the day all get fair time, and the particular connection between Toronto and Montreal, the two most important cities in Canada in that day, is explored in great depth, while historically important teams such as Ottawa, Kenora, Renfrew, Sault Ste Marie, and the like, get sufficient time to explain their relationship to the developing professional leagues.
At the heart of the book is the particular battle between the professional and the amateur leagues for the hearts and attendance of the hockey fans in Toronto. It develops the environment from which the often ignored Allan Cup emerged. It looks at the power-brokering of John Ross Robertson, the founder of the Toronto Telegram and one of the great movers and shakers in the early era of hockey and amateur hockey in specific.
Harper spends a good deal of time exploring the 1914 Toronto Blue Shirts Stanley Cup victory vis-a-vis Robertson's constant attempts to retain Toronto as an amateur-sport oriented town. The battle between the steadily gaining professionalism in sport and the idealism of amateur-only athletics climaxes in this part of the book. It is these Blue Shirts which are the so-called "forgotten Leafs".
On the whole, Harper's writing style, while not breezy, is certainly readable. The prose is tightly written and neither purpled with adjectives nor terse. There is a lot of wonderful detail of the period, and a sufficient number of illustrations to help bring things to life. And there are some interesting observations about the historical relationship of the Canadiens and the Leafs which make this historical rivalry even more appropriate!
I would recommend this work to anyone interested in seeing some of the greater picture of the early days of the Stanley Cup and professional hockey. It certainly has helped me understand that many of the things we see in the game today, labour-relations wise, have a long and storied history, too!
Note to the more politically-minded reader: Mr Harper's politics seem, to my reading, not to be deeply involved in his recounting of this history; the theme and topic remains hockey and, specifically, the dynamic between amateur and professional hockey in the early decades of the 20th century.