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Task Force on Sports – Interview with Doug « Douglas Fisher



Reflections: Task Force on Sports … behind the scenes
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

In 1969, I took on a role in sport which came to dominate most of my spare time for a decade—during which I became chairman of Hockey Canada, a founding director of the Coaching Association of Canada, and prime mover in setting up an offshoot of the CAC called the Sports Information Research Centre. (This latter, using computers, was to become a library and bibliographic centre storing all that was written and published in international sport, as well as tracking the development and performances of top flight athletes and teams.)

During the 1968 election campaign, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had met a number of sport representatives who wanted the federal government to take on a much stronger leadership and financing role, particularly in international sport. Some of the best representations came from figure skating and ice hockey. In BC, late in the campaign, Trudeau promised action. He would see that his government took the lead in restoring Canada’s once-high reputation in Olympic sport, particularly in hockey. After winning the election, Trudeau had named John Munro, an MP from Hamilton, as minister of health, and responsible for sport. Munro had promptly set up a commission of inquiry to get the ball rolling—the Task Force on Fitness and Amateur Sport.

It was chaired by an oil company president, Charles Rea. Mr. Rea was a very well known fundraiser for the YMCA and the United Church of Canada, and a hockey enthusiast whose daughter was married to Carl Brewer, star defenceman with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rea’s two companion commissioners were Nancy Greene and Paul Desruisseaux. Greene was a gold medalist in skiing, busy at that time coaching skiers and developing ski resort properties. One of our first-ever Winter Olympic heroes. A thinker and a doer. Paul was the necessary French Canadian, a former swimming champion and a plastic surgeon. Their lead writer was Doug Maxwell, a sports writer with a curling background.

One day late in 1968, I went to take a steam bath in Parliament Hill’s centre block and found myself in a chair next to John Munro. We had been enemies when I was in the House of Commons and several times he had attacked me in the chamber for being both an MP and a political journalist writing about MPs. In short, I was a snoop, poaching on my role as MP to win attention and make money as a published critic of MPs.

I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to talk to him but thought I would at least be civil so I asked him where his sport commission stood at the moment. My rather token question unleashed a long tale of despair.

By nature very impatient, Munro always wanted to get things done fast. In contrast, the task force was bogged down in talk, with half a dozen different authors working on drafts of its report. I asked him who the commissioners had hired to do the research and the writing for them and it turned out they had a bevy of them, all of whom seemed to have their own ideas of what should be in the report.

After he had summarized this tale of woe, I asked when the report would be out. He said he had announced months ago that it would be out by the end of February, 1969, but that at the rate it was going it didn’t seem to have a chance of making that deadline. I said that I thought that was too bad because if the report didn’t come out before the late spring, it would be hard to get any parliamentary action on it during the year.

He said that he was trying to make up his mind about who might be brought in to take over all the drafts and the various ideas that had been gathered, to turn them into a tight, workable report—nothing fancy, just a straightforward program for action.

I told him I wished I could help because I was very much interested in sport, that the history of sport had been a hobby of mine for over 20 years, and that I thought it was time the federal government took its responsibilities for international sport and national fitness seriously.

He asked, would I be willing to do it? My jaw literally dropped. How could it work, I said—a stranger coming in at this late date to write the report. Would the commissioners not be up in arms? No, he said, they wouldn’t be, they were in total confusion and they knew it. None of the three was the kind who could sit down and write or dictate something.

I said I would consider doing it on two conditions—that I could work with Sid Wise, a friend of mine, a professor of history with a similar interest in sport, and that we not be paid, that way keeping our connections clean—mine with the Toronto Telegram, Sid’s with the Department of National Defence (where he was director of history).

Munro got very excited there in the steam bath and went haring off to a phone to get something started. The next day Sid said he was willing to share the chore with me providing all the material the commissioners thought relevant was handed to us, and that they were agreeable to us doing it. Munro’s deputy minister, Joe Willard, phoned me to welcome my participation and to ask if I could come the next day with Sid for a meeting with the minister. Meantime, he would ask Lou Lefaive, the acting director of the Sport and Fitness section of National Health and Welfare, to brief us on the paper and the personalities involved.

So it was that within four or five days, Sid and I had an empty room in the new health department tower at Tunney’s Pasture, and a pile of drafts and papers covering half a table.

We were unable to work at it full time but through the Christmas-New Year period got our teeth into it and by the middle of January thought we had a grasp of the main lines for recommendations. We agreed we were ready to write the most difficult part of the report, a long preface about the role of sport in Canada, and a justification for a federal program and spending as a rebuttal to the main question raised by critics—that sport was a personal and usually frivolous matter compared to old age pensions, national defence, or medical discovery.

I forget now which of the two of us wrote most of the draft. I think the putting of conceptions to paper was largely my role but Sidney was certainly the editor and the prose craftsman. When it was published, it developed a really good response and also drew vigorous but useful criticism for making a favourable comparison of sport with classical music, drama and dance as deserving federal dollars and promotion.

In the run up to the publishing of the report in March, we got to know Mr. Rea a little bit and found him enthusiastic and delighted with what we were producing. Lou Lefaive, and the secretary of the inquiry, Christopher Lang, were extremely useful to us in seeing that our material and line of reasoning could be related or tied to the views and recommendations that had been given to us by sporting bodies. Of course we had choices to make on what to emphasize and we decided to emphasize hockey and winter sports generally.

The recommendations on hockey were the most complex and particular. Some of the recommendations were boldly done. They envisaged the creation of a new body to be called Hockey Canada, which was to have two responsibilities—development of a high calibre hockey team capable of winning world championships, to assuage Canadian outrage at Canadian international teams being soundly defeated by Russians and even by Czechs and Swedes; and improvement in Canadian hockey coaching, widening opportunities for both coaches and players to have the facilities and backing to improve both individual and team play. The latter was greeted quite bitterly by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, which to this time had been both sponsor and chooser of the teams representing Canada internationally and managers of the project.

The report boldly stated that Canada was put at a disadvantage by the present rules disallowing Canadian professional players from representing their country while permitting Russian players, even Czech players for that matter, who were professional in all but name.

The report also recommended that Hockey Canada’s board should have representatives from the National Hockey League, the CHA, the Canadian Universities Association for Hockey, and provincial hockey associations.

Munro and his deputy were very taken with the positive response that the report won and the fact that there were no objections to the almost immediate release of the names of those who would direct Hockey Canada and who would work at creating a Coaching Association of Canada. Munro wanted both me and Sid to be on Hockey Canada or one or two of the other associations. Sid said he couldn’t; he had had difficulty getting clearance just to work on the report. I could, and ended up the government’s first man on Hockey Canada’s board, as well Coaching Association’s board.

Munro insisted that at Hockey Canada’s expense, Sid and I should visit the World Ice Hockey Championships in Stockholm, where Father Bauer’s team was representing the country.

Before the tournament started, it looked as though the Bauer team would acquit itself very well, but the real drama came when the Czechs handed the Russians one of their rare defeats, almost causing a revolt against the Russian yoke in Prague. The Canadian team wound up third or fourth.

While in Stockholm, Munro let us know that he would arrive before the tournament ended. He came in on the last day with news that Montreal had won the right to host the 1976 Olympics. He and his advisors were most discouraged about this because there had been no enthusiasm in Ottawa for Mayor Drapeau’s persistence in seeking the Olympics. They had wanted Canada’s bid for the winter games to win, Trudeau was against it, even as a Montrealer, but he felt that his government had to give Drapeau a letter saying rather bleakly that it supported the Montreal bid.

Both the Hockey Canada and the Coaching Association situations were getting beyond me because I just couldn’t get enough time to control the full time employees. At the Coaching Association, the trouble was delusions of grandeur on the part of Lyle Leslie and one other, the numbers one and two. They wanted to concentrate on establishing a high academic quality in their programs and documents in each of the six levels of coaching attainment. These six had been decided based on a progression from an initiation level of coaching to a certified coaching specialist.

As for Hockey Canada, there was increasing nastiness between Alan Eagleson and Joe Kryczka (president of Canadian Amateur Hockey Association at the time). The quarrel hinged on who was going to control the investment of one million dollars set aside from the auspices of the 1976 Canada Cup. So I set in motion the search for someone to replace me in each of those organizations.

The replacement didn’t come until well into 1979, so before the year ended, Iona Campagnolo, the sports minister, insisted that I should accompany the University of Toronto hockey team, which was going to visit Japan and China, to have discussions with the Chinese about strengthening their participation in the sport. Her insistence meant that one of the top CAHA executives missed the trip; I had never had fans in the CAHA. The CAHA president accompanied me, as joint head of mission, and we got along surprisingly well.

We lined up a working agreement on hosting Chinese hockey coaches at a school to be held in Canada, and arranged for a Chinese team to visit Canada the next year.

The trip turned out to be marvelously interesting. It was a splendid shock to see thousands and thousands of Chinese in their northern cities, skating on the open lakes, and hundreds of kids carrying hockey sticks.

I got home two days after Christmas and was able to tell Matthew’s brothers that at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, I was introduced in the receiving line by the ambassador’s wife as Matthew Fisher’s father (he had gone to school with their daughter).