By Jaclyn Mika
In politics he is known as a pit bull, but it’s on a hockey rink where provincial health minister George Smitherman is most ferocious.
“He’s not afraid to take a penalty for the team,” says Tom Lovengak, the team captain of Pharma Crews of the Toronto Gay Hockey Association.
The TGHA is a city-wide hockey league that began in 1994 for homosexual men and women and the league is designed to be more of a fun league than a competitive one.
In fact, players are shuffles onto different teams every year so that rivalries do not become an issue.
However, the league’s non-competitive approach has never stopped Smitherman, the MPP for Ryerson’s riding of Toronto Centre-Rosedale, from being the most intense competitor.
Lovengak describes Smitherman’s style of hockey as “hard-nosed” and says he is “a player who likes to get into the corners.”
Adding to his spewing list of sports clichés, Lovengak also said Smitherman was “a good guy in the dressing room.”
While he political career has been successful since he was first elected in 1999, Smitherman’s on-ice career has been equally notorious.
During the 1997-98 TGHA season, Smitherman was awarded the Tonya Harding trophy.
The award, named after the infamous U.S. women’s figure skater who hired her bodyguard to physically assault her top competitor, is given annually to the league’s dirtiest player.
Since his award winning season, Smitherman says he has become a marked man by the TGHA referees.
“The penalties that I get, I never earn them,” says Smitherman.
“In my league, it works like this: you win one Tonya Harding award and you’re marked for life.”
Smitherman hates sitting in the penalty box, but he admits his favorite part of the week is on Sunday night when he dawns his teal and maroon Pharma Crews jersey.
A torn rotator cuff took Smithearman off the ice after only four games this year, but the injury definitely didn’t hinder his performance off the ice.
The gloves came off during Smitherman’s campaign against the provincial Tories in 2003.
While most of his fellow Liberal candidates played a clean, non-contact strategy prior to the election, Smitherman often went out of his way to verbally assert himself against his Tory competitors during campaigning. It was during this time his rival candidates labeled him as the Liberal’s “pit bull.”
The good cop-bad cop strategy paid off. The Liberals put the Tories in the penalty box by winning 72 of the potential 103 seats in the Ontario Legislature.
Since then Smitherman has scored his own unique political hat trick: he was re-elected in his riding, appointed health minister and chosen as one of three Liberals appointed to the policy and priorities committee.
As a result of his injury and his increasingly hectic schedule, Smitherman has not attended many Pharma Crews games this season.
He says he prefers playing to watching TGHA hockey games.
But Smitherman can’t be blamed for that. Watching a TGHA game isn’t exactly an exciting Sunday night out. The league does not gather the most enthusiastic crowds. By the end of most games the spectators have already retired to the bar or gone home.
Only one or two people cheer when a goal is scored and there is a distinct lack of heckling. In fact, during a game on Dec. 13, one fan spent the entire game with his nose buried in a book.
He didn’t realize the game was over until people started getting up to leave.
However, Smitherman does not shy away from watching hockey at other venues.
On two occasions he has bought standing-room-only tickets for Leafs games from scalpers.
He cites watching the last game at Maple Leafs Gardens as one of the best hockey games he has ever been to.
Smitherman says it is safe to call him a rather boisterous Leafs fan.
As loyal as Smitherman is to the Liberal party, he’s more likely to be caught shaking hands with Ernie Eves than wearing red at a Leafs game.
“I’m a pretty partisan Liberal; the only time I really like to wear blue is for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” says Smitherman.
In fact, while Pierre Trudeau is his political inspirational figure, there is only one man that inspires Smitherman’s work ethic now.
“I try to mimic him when I work,” says Smitherman of Leaf veteran Gary Roberts, his favourite player. “He works harder than anybody else.”
His admiration for Roberts is partly the reason why Smitherman continually requests to play forward.
Although his slow mobility makes him a natural defenceman, Smitherman prefers to play on the wing. The left-wing, of course.
Smitherman will not return to Pharma Crews this year, but he may play with fellow MPPs in Ontario Legislature charity game this year.