Coach put troublemaking teen John Horgan on track to B.C.’s New Democrat leader

Coach put NDP's John Horgan on right track

VANCOUVER — As a teenager, John Horgan was as far away from becoming a political leader in British Columbia as you could get.

He was shooting pool at Suzy-Q’s, smoking cigarettes and playing the role of troublemaker at the corner of Douglas and Yates streets in downtown Victoria.

“I was a 14-year-old, 15-year-old who’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” Horgan said in a recent interview at the NDP’s downtown Vancouver office.

“I was hanging around with the wrong crowd,” the NDP leader said. “I wasn’t showing up at school. I was getting into trouble. I’m going to leave it at that.”

It was only when a high school basketball coach took him by the collar and told him to report to the gym that he turned things around and devoted himself to sports and academics.

“That’s really my deep dark secret. I could have gone one way and I ended up where I’m at,” Horgan said.

His father died from a brain aneurysm when he was 18 months old and Horgan fought bladder cancer a decade ago. He said those personal struggles opened his heart, especially to society’s underdogs.

Horgan, 57, said he has no memories of his dad.

“My brothers, my mom and my sister would always tell me the stories,” he said. “My brothers would tell me stories about how he was a basketball fanatic.”

Pat Horgan managed Victoria’s top senior men’s basketball squad in the 1950s and ran the score clock during local lacrosse games. Horgan said his dad would have been proud to know his youngest son played basketball and lacrosse in the same venues.

At 6-2 tall, 250 pounds, playing team sports taught him he could make points without resorting to goon tactics.

“I’m large. I didn’t have to do much,” he said.

A Victoria news magazine once put his photo on its cover holding a lacrosse stick under the headline “The Enforcer.”

“My coach saw this and he came into my office and said, ‘Horgan, you were a lover. You were never a fighter.’ I tended to stay out of the penalty box. I liked to score goals.”

His mother became his role model as she struggled to raise four children alone, while instilling a willingness to help and stand up for others. Money was tight and, at times, food hampers were delivered to the Horgan home.

“My mom taught me if there was someone who needed help you should step in and help them,” said Horgan, who grew up wanting to be a social worker. “I was raised to be kind to people.”

But his imposing presence and Irish verbal skills can come across as confrontational. 

“I’m passionate, for sure,” he said. “I always respond viscerally to bullying.”

Horgan has two grown sons, Nate and Evan, and he says he never missed their hockey games or musical events.

He met his wife, Ellie, while they were students at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

Horgan was acclaimed NDP leader in 2014 after the party’s demoralizing 2013 election defeat. The NDP has been in Opposition since 2001.

Former premier Dan Miller, also known for a sharp tongue, said he doesn’t see a problem with his former chief of staff showing his emotions.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a bit of an edge, frankly,” said Miller, who described Horgan as a problem solver and a strong communicator.

“John has the ability to understand issues and concepts and explain them to individuals or the public at large.”

Roy Banner said his friend often gets on the bus in his riding and holds impromptu meetings with passengers.

“He’s approachable,” Banner said. “He’s able to put things in peoples minds by the way he tells a story.”

In his spare time, Horgan prefers reading science-fiction or watching Star Trek.

“I like to dive into something that doesn’t exist,” said Horgan, who hitched up a pant leg to show off his Star Trek socks. “I like to be completely detached from the world I live in. That’s how I relax.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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