Oilers' Game Six victory tainted by Harper

Thursday, June 29, 2006

If you were watching television coverage of Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals, you couldn’t have missed noticing one fan that stood out from the rest. Not only did cameras frequently cut to images of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the fifteenth row, but Harper also gave extensive media interviews between periods. Those interviews were conducted by sports reporters, so he didn’t have to worry about facing any of the hard hitting questions that he works so hard to avoid.

With the Oilers pulling off a remarkable 4-0 win, the ensuing good feelings that spread across the land were bound to rub off on Harper. Indeed, Harper’s name (and sometimes his image) was featured in virtually every media account of the game that I subsequently read or saw. The only public relations downside was over his refusal to obey the rink’s dress code. He told reporters that wearing an Edmonton jersey was out of the question because “that picture would be used against me in Calgary” (as if his party is in any danger of losing seats in that city).

Oh, and Harry Neale – Hockey Night in Canada’s human measuring tape (his typical so-called analysis: “that shot came from 18 feet out”) – appeared to suggest that Harper would soon be needing a new job after the next election and could apply to work for as a professional scout. Right-wingers were predictably outraged at yet another example of CBC bias and some in the blogosphere even called for the government to “axe the CBC” in retaliation (apparently ignoring the fact that, for two consecutive broadcasts, Don Cherry had used the show as a platform for his “support the troops” message).

For the most part, however, the decision to have Harper attend the game had to be seen as a public relations coup for the Conservative, and yet another small victory in the campaign to soften up the image of a man who shakes his kids’ hands when he drops them off at school. That was, of course, until people started asking questions about how it was that Harper was able to find tickets to a game that sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale.

It turns out that Harper wasn’t the only Conservative Member of Parliament in attendance. And, after some digging, The Ottawa Citizen eventually unearthed the story of how Harper, his bodyguards, four members of his communications staff, and six members of his caucus made it through the turnstiles of Rexall Place. Calling the game “the ultimate boys' night out”, The Citizen revealed that the MPs were flown to Edmonton on Harper’s private jet, courtesy of Canadian taxpayers. While the MPs paid for their own tickets, the cost of Harper’s seat and the seat next to him (which the six MPs took turns occupying so that they could have their very own photo op) was reportedly picked up by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The MPs involved in the junket were Laurie Hawn, Rob Bruinooge, Rahim Jaffer, Kevin Sorenson, James Rajotte and Mike Lake. The ticket grab was arranged by Lake, who once worked for the Oilers before being elected. The purchase was made directly from the team. Apparently, the Conservatives believe in two-tier ticket sales for hockey games. The excuses being offered for this abuse of power and of taxpayers are laughable. Harper was already scheduled to fly to Vancouver, so it was “convenient to stop in Edmonton en route”. I’m sure that it would also have been “convenient” to stop in Winnipeg to fight West Nile by symbolically swatting a mosquito, but that stop would have been as much fun for the gang of seven.

Harper’s spokesperson Sandra Buckler insists that “We make no apologies for cheering on a Canadian team.” But, no one is asking them to apologize for cheering for a Canadian team. What people are questioning is their decision to force their way to the front of the ticket lineup and to use a government jet to get to the game.

According to Lake, it was “good for the community” to see Harper and the MPs out supporting the small-market team. “'It was very important from them to have us come to the game.” But, the team wasn’t exactly suffering for support before Game Six, were they? It’s not as if those seats would have been empty without the intervention of the PMO. And, realistically, does the survival of small-market NHL teams really depend on MPs being willing to drop everything and have the taxpayers fly them across the country?

Jaffer is claiming that, after the Oilers’ Game Five victory, he and other MPs actually had to lobby the Prime Minister to attend the game (that must have been a difficult argument to make). “We thought if he could stop by and see the game and be there, it would be a real boost to the city.” While the Oilers’ playoff run was definitely a boost to the city, no one could seriously argue that the Prime Minister’s trip added anything to that boost.

Let’s get real. Harper and his MPs weren’t really interested in giving a boost to the Oilers. They were hoping that the Oilers would give a boost to them.
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