Harper holds forth on hockey and the Canadian character in Sports Illustrated

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TORONTO - If Canada makes it to the gold-medal game at this month's Vancouver Olympics it's doubtful it would be more historically significant than the 1972 Summit Series, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

An avid hockey historian, Harper knows his stuff. He displayed the depth of his knowledge in an interview with Sports Illustrated, holding court in detail on both the history of the game and its role in shaping Canadian society.

Harper went so far as to liken Canada's experience in the seminal 1972 hockey battles against Russia to the Allied experience in the early part of the Second World War.

"The national psyche was at stake here, I think, in a much different way than the gold medal game," Harper said in an interview on the magazine's website SI.com. "The Canada-Soviet series had an overarching reality of Cold War confrontation as well, which really nothing today can replicate."

Nevertheless, if Canada makes it to the Olympic finals in Vancouver, it would still be one of the two or three most important games on Canadian ice, he predicted.

There is a danger that hockey will dominate the Olympics, something that would be unfortunate, Harper said.

"Canada has really grown and grown as an Olympic power. The Olympics is about more than hockey."

Harper is writing a book on hockey history and is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research.

He added the tough, aggressive, fast-paced aspects of hockey are as much a part of the Canadian character as being "peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant."

There are parallels between Canada's love for hockey and the U.S. love for baseball, Harper said, but Canadians' love of hockey is more intense because baseball competes with football and basketball for Americans' attention.

"Although there are important sports in Canada - our own football, lacrosse - nothing does compete with hockey. It's on a different plane."

Harper also conceded that the chance to live out his boyhood fantasy of playing in the National Hockey League would outweigh the prestige of being prime minister.

"It's probably terrible to say, but any Canadian boy, if he could play in the NHL, would play in the NHL."

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