Seeing Prime Minister Harper behind the bench for a charity hockey game a couple of weeks ago made me wonder what kind of a hockey coach he might have been.
Perhaps a player’s coach; leading with a pat on the back and a word of encouragement. Or maybe a motivator, squeezing the most out of his players with fiery grab-you-by-the-guts locker room speeches.
Stephen Harper would probably have been an X’s & O’s kind of coach, dissecting video for the smallest tactical weakness in the opposition–but not your line-up-here-and-take-your-man kind of X’s & O’s. We’re talking X’s & O’s on a grand scale from a paradigm-shifting, game changing kind of coach.
The first, as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, elevated intimidation to a system, winning two Stanley Cups along the way. The second is widely credited with introducing the “Trap” to modern hockey (a tactical design that forced a re-writing of the NHL’s rule book).
One team intimidated its opponents; the other choked off the centre and stifled any offense.
Using very different tactics, both coaches succeeded in forcing opposing teams to adapt to their style and play against their strengths. They changed the way the game of hockey was played in much the same way that Stephen Harper is changing the way politics is played in Ottawa.
Just as Lemaire’s neutral zone trap could puzzle a casual observer and even the odd expert, some of the Prime Minister’s tactics are leaving pundits and his opponents scratching their heads.
But that is the simple beauty of it.
The anti-government approach to government; the dumbing-down of policy debates; the anti-elite stance; the wrapping of the government’s narrative in a kind of faux common sense; have left the opposition parties stumbling in their attempts to define themselves.
This strategy has been particularly damaging for the Liberals, who as a traditional “big tent”, “big idea” party are struggling to define their narrative in a manner that resonates in the narrow debates that characterize Ottawa politics today.
Elite accommodation is all but gone as a way of doing business in Ottawa. And it seems clear that whether Canadians like it or not, the book on political engagement in Canada has been re-written. The question is how long it will remain on the shelves.
Will its longevity compare to the two year run of the Broad Street Bullies who, once confronted by a team tougher than themselves (the Scotty Bowman-led Montreal Canadiens) never regained hockey supremacy? Or will the new playbook fundamentally change the game as did Jacques Lemaire’s Trap?
Much will depend on how the Opposition responds and adapts. In 1975, Montreal General Manger Sam Pollock brought in his own heavyweights to support speedy and talented players like Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. That was the end of the Broad Street Bullies’ hold on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
As for the Trap, it took a slew of rule changes by the NHL to restore some speed and grace to our national game. Until then, the only way to try to beat it was to dump and chase.
With our national political debates unlikely to feature much grace and finesse for the foreseeable future, the opposition parties will have no choice but to continue to dump and chase to try to beat Harper’s Trap.
That will suit the “coach” just fine.