A ruthless leadership at play in politics and hockey

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Hockey players on ice. Image credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

They haunt us still, to paraphrase a famous book about Pierre Trudeau. Classic hockey collapses. The Oilers had one for the ages this week.

There should be a special alcove for them in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Why? Because they're indelible. They, not the carbon copy triumphs and celebrations, are the essential fan experience. Each seems to resurrect memories of an earlier nightmare. For the Edmonton Oilers, that 1982 crash in L.A. against the Kings.

(I should confess at some point, and why not now, that I'm writing on Thursday afternoon before Game five against Les Canadiens. Hope and dread mingle.)

For the Leafs, the template is 2013's collapse to the Boston Bruins with a three-goal lead halfway through the third period. The NHL, with absolutely no need to sear it in our souls, named that the "game of the decade."

But for me it resurrected an earlier third-period debacle, in 1977 against Philadelphia. The Leafs had gone ahead and the Flyers, deflated, were slouching back to their bench; they'd clearly given up! But before them, standing and leaning over the ice, maybe even straddling the boards, urgent to get out there, was Bobby Clarke.

He was their captain and he screamed at them to get their heads back in the game -- they could do this, they would, they'd better. He undoubtedly inspired, bullied or willed them into it. They tied it and won in OT.

That became my template of a certain kind of leadership. He had to win and so, to fill his need, they did. He made them do it. (They lost the next round, but there's always room to adjust the template.) Clarke wasn't nice or admirable. In the 1972 Russia-Canada series, he swung his stick like an axe at Russian star Valeri Kharlamov's ankle, breaking it. Maybe a coach told him to, as the miniseries Canada Russia '72 depicted, but Clarke's need to win was behind it.

"I would suggest," said Paul Henderson, who scored the winning goal in Game eight in Moscow, coming from behind, "that [Clarke] was the only one of the 35 players that would have gone out and done that." That's the moment when Europeans lost their unblemished reverence for Canadian hockey. Russian players, who'd have willingly settled for a tie, were awestruck by the Canadians' need to win.

It's not the only kind of leadership -- but it's a certain, ruthless kind, that may be even more at home in politics than sports. "He's the only one who wants it that much," said a former Conservative cabinet minister about Brian Mulroney. That's how insiders tend to analyze politics, not by polls or issues.

And hence to Queen's Park. A provincial election's a year away, but even now subjugates the pandemic. "Tories fundraising off the pandemic with an election a year away," read a recent Star headline. So who wants it that much, there, now?

Not Doug Ford. He seems less driven than distraught. He's about one more crybaby outburst away from irrelevance, and I'm guessing polls confirm that. It's why they've hidden him from sight and put everyone else out front.

Andrea Horwath? She gives no sign of wanting it. She somnambulated through the last election, when the NDP had a real shot. She replies to lobs, like Ford saying she sounds like nails on a chalkboard, with banalities ("We're here not just to oppose but to propose"). She seems unreservedly content as leader of the opposition, an undemanding gig with perks like a big office. A former cabinet minister in Bob Rae's NDP government said they preferred being out to in. They could arise late, mouth off in question period, then retire for the day.

And Steven Del Duca. Who? Leader of the Liberals, who's not even an MPP. He's nobody's idea of charisma. He's moulded a perfectly counterintuitive look for politics. (The glasses take it over the top.) Yet he seems to want, nay, need it. His party's suddenly ahead of Ford's, who lead Horwath's. That look is starting to say, I don't care how I look, I'm coming through. He's straddling the boards and yelling at his team. I can't see Horwath doing that. And Ford? He'd be sobbing and whining as he gets into his pickup, for some reason. Watch this guy.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

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