Monday, October 21, 2013

They toss their hats in the rink

If former goalie Ken Dryden scores big at the polls on Monday, he will be the fifth hockey player elected to the House of Commons. TOM HAWTHORN reports

The Globe and Mail
June 26, 2004

Howie Meeker returned home from the 1951 hockey season a conquering hero, the Stanley Cup once again safely in Toronto Maple Leaf hands.

He had barely unpacked at his home in New Hamburg, Ont., when civic leaders approached with a proposal. They wanted the popular hockey player to run as the Progressive Conservative candidate in an upcoming federal by-election.

"Gentlemen," the right-winger remembers telling them, "I can't afford it."

Mr. Meeker was making $6,000 as a Leaf at a time when the salary for an MP was only $4,000. With that, he bundled his wife and kids into the family car and left for a trout-fishing holiday in Quebec.

He had no idea he would soon be moving from the players' bench at Maple Leaf Gardens to the back bench in the House of Commons.

A hockey player has an advantage as a candidate, bringing to the hustings name recognition in a land where the sport is nearly a national religion.

As prime minister, Jean Chrétien appreciated the popularity of retired hockey stars, naming Frank (The Big M) Mahovlich to the Senate and asking Jean (Le Gros Bill) Béliveau to become governor-general. Mr. Béliveau turned down the vice-regal post for personal reasons.

Just last month, Conservative Deputy Leader Peter MacKay mused aloud about having outspoken Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry as a candidate. Mr. Cherry passed on the invitation, to the relief of some Conservative organizers who feared his reputation would hurt their campaign in Quebec.

Mr. Cherry, whose National Hockey League career lasted but one game, is not the only reluctant puck politician. Of the 3,847 Canadians ever elected to the House of Commons, only four have played in the NHL.

On Monday, Ken Dryden seeks to become the fifth. The Liberal candidate in York Centre is a lawyer and best-selling author, but he is not asked to sign autographs on the campaign trail because of his agile turns of phrase. He is a celebrity from his days as a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and a front-office executive with the Maple Leafs.

As a goalie, Mr. Dryden was a natural, crooking an elbow over the top of the net to regain his balance after making a save. He helped to lead the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup championship in six of his eight seasons.

He is something less of a natural as a politician, finding conversation with voters more compelling than the hand-shaking, baby-kissing, flesh-pressing rituals of convention. He even finds it "weird" to see his name on lawn signs.

Mr. Dryden was campaigning recently when a man working on his driveway stopped after spotting him. The man placed both hands on his shovel before leaning on it with his chin, adopting Mr. Dryden's famous pose from his playing days when he would rest on his goal stick.

The candidate was taken aback by the display. "I felt surprise at first, then embarrassment, then realized it was fun," he says.

Mr. Dryden says he most enjoys the chore he most feared, the door-to-door canvassing in which he meets "people with problems and possibilities."

He has found the 36-day campaign to be as gruelling as the NHL playoffs. He has pulled a tendon in his right knee, although the injury is being ignored until after the election. "You can't exactly go on the DL [disabled list] for 14 days," he says.

Besides, a hockey pedigree is no guarantee of electoral success.

Syl Apps was an all-star centre with the Maple Leafs when he announced his candidacy in the 1940 general election. Mr. Apps, just 25, had already played four seasons in the NHL, having turned professional shortly after competing in the 1936 Olympics as a pole vaulter. He ran in Ontario's Brant riding, which included his Paris birthplace, under the National Government banner, as Robert Manion had renamed the wartime Conservatives.

On election night, Mr. Apps was on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens to face the Detroit Red Wings in a playoff game. He was brilliant, scoring a goal in a 2-1 Toronto victory.

That narrow triumph was tempered by the news of the election results, as he lost by just 138 votes to the Liberal incumbent, a farmer.

After retiring as a player, Mr. Apps won three elections to the Ontario Legislature, serving as correctional services minister for three years.

Bill Hicke and Dick Duff are two retired NHL players who lost federal campaigns.

Mr. Hicke, a self-employed businessman who won two Stanley Cups in a 14-season career, was a Conservative candidate in Regina-Qu'Appelle in 1988. He was runner-up to restaurateur Simon De Jong of the NDP.

Mr. Duff had just completed a 17-season NHL career in 1972 when, as a Liberal, he faced off against Arnold Peters of the NDP in Timiskaming. He lost by 3,559 votes.

Back in 1951, Mr. Meeker was cooking trout for breakfast at a fishing hole alongside an isolated road when a cloud of dirt in the distance heralded the arrival of a visitor. A dusty limousine pulled up to deliver Conservative leader George Drew, who talked the reluctant player into running.

"My first political meeting was my own nomination meeting," says Mr. Meeker, who inherited his Tory politics from English immigrant parents.

He handed out such election paraphernalia as ink blotters and miniature hockey sticks, even though getting his name before the public was not a problem. "Everyone knew me," he says. "Dryden has that same advantage."

On June 25, 1951, Mr. Meeker, whose occupation on the ballot was listed as "hockey player," won the by-election in Waterloo South by defeating a Liberal dairyman and a housewife running for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the NDP.

The feeling of being on the floor of the Commons was familiar to the rookie MP. "It's an arena," he says. "It was exactly the same as playing hockey. There's arguing and bitching and complaining and everything else."

Mr. Meeker lined up against two former players who were Liberal MPs from Ontario. Former Leafs defenceman Bucko McDonald had first been elected in Parry Sound in 1945. Lionel (The Big Train) Conacher defeated a Conservative incumbent, as well as Communist Party leader Tim Buck, in winning the Toronto riding of Trinity in 1949.

Mr. Conacher, who enjoyed a 12-season NHL career that earned him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, died in 1954 after suffering a heart attack while legging out a triple during a Parliament Hill softball game pitting MPs against reporters.

Mr. Meeker decided not to seek re-election in the 1953 general election, embarking on a career that later saw him become a well-known hockey commentator. He is retired and lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, where he has been involved in Canadian Alliance and now Conservative campaigns.

The only other active NHL player to be elected was Red Kelly, his nickname matching the colour of his party. Mr. Kelly was a Leafs star in 1962 when he joined Lester Pearson's Liberals on the Opposition benches as the member for York West.

He moved to the government benches the following year when Mr. Pearson formed a minority government. In that election, Mr. Kelly thumped an up-and-coming Conservative lawyer by the name of Alan Eagleson, who later became executive director of the NHL Players Association.

In York Centre, Mr. Dryden finds the competition of an election campaign to be familiar from his days as a goalie. He is bracing for the voters' verdict on Monday by remembering a lesson he learned on the ice. "If you want to win," he said, "you have to be afraid of losing."

Tom Hawthorn is a writer based in Victoria.