Easel Does It: Ottawa artist (and former goaltender) Tony Harris spent the last past year on a commission to paint the NHL’s 100 greatest players. He finished the job last week. This weekend, from Sid Abel to Steve Yzerman, the original oils are all on show together at Montreal’s Windsor Station as part of the NHL’s Centennial celebrations. Visiting hours are today from noon to 7 pm and, tomorrow, noon to 4 pm.
That’s Harris here, in his Ottawa studio, earlier this year. I talked to him for a piece that’s on the page today in The New York Times.
The early pre-Munro table-hockey game known as Hockette would seem to have seen its heyday come and go in the early 1920s. Most of that, as far as I can tell, was on the West Coast. Giving it a go here are members of Charles Royal’s theatre troupe, onstage at Vancouver’s Empress Theatre. Doesn’t look like there was a lot to it: assuming that the table was sold separately, we’re talking about rudimentary wooden puck and peg-goalposts and a handful of wire wands. “Indoor Hockey, the new Scream in Parlour Games” was the sales pitch at one Vancouver store in 1921. At Woodward’s Department Store at Hastings and Abbott, you could pick up yours for 95 cents (reduced from $2.25). The game was already sweeping the city, apparently: the previous November, The Vancouver Daily World was reporting that Mrs. Carr of Strathcona had hosted a Hockette tournament at her house. “A pleasant evening was spent,” and what a crowd: Mrs. Drummond, Miss Clague, Mr. T. Tootle, and Mr. Rufus Dome all partook, though I’m afraid they were losers all. “Mrs. Christie and Mrs. Hendrick secured the honours of the evening.” (Image: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99 – 3252)
I always thought I was. Even now, today, put me in front of a tabletop hockey game and I’ll be working those rods with same desperation as I did as a seven-year-old. Shunting those damned rods forward to shift those tin wingers down their little rink-grooves as though I could force them to finesse as the puck that wasn’t even a puck skittered away to that dead spot behind the net that was out of range for every player on the not-ice.
And still, as it was back in the rec room, I’m always only ever a flicker of the wrist away from alchemizing all that shoving and ricocheting into actual stickhandling and deking.
This is going back to the early 1970s when I first took up at table-hockey in the basement in Peterborough, Ontario. I was — six? seven? My older brother wouldn’t play, wasn’t interested. I probably volunteered my sister to duty, but she would have been too young to appreciate the responsibility involved in pushing around her Don Levers and Bobby Schmautzes with serious enough intent to make the game worth my while.
So it would have been up to my parents. They were patient if not always entirely willing. I was — obviously; always — Montreal.
Donald Munro started it all, table-hockeywise. That’s the story. In Toronto, 1932, in the dimlit Depression, he built the first mechanical hockey game as a Christmas present for his children. Coathangers and butcher’s twine figure into the telling, lumber cadged from coalbins. Then Munro built more, sold them at Eaton’s. It was more of a pinball affair in those years, with a flipper standing in for Charlie Conacher on the wooden wing, a ball-bearing pretending to be a puck.
By the time I got my Munro in the early 1970s, the game had developed without really having evolved. For all the molded plastic and bright NHL colours, the aesthetic was still fairly coathanger. I did love the flat simplicity of the players, even though, disappointingly, none of their grinning faces resembled any of the Canadiens I knew from TV. I was fond of the tiny nets, too, which I’d unmoor and carry with me, sometimes, just in case.
My Munro was a basic model, I think. The old ads I’m looking at show the Bobby Orr edition (regularly priced in 1972 at $29.95) and the Bobby Hull ($16.95). I don’t know that mine was Bobby-branded, though. The “working scoretower with puck-dropper” on the basic Coleco ($11.97) sounds familiar. “Pass, shoot, block and check — complete hockey fun,” the Munro ads promise; “over 1,000 square inches of exciting, action hockey.”
It wasn’t, though, was it? Yes, okay, I’ll accept there, from the physics point of view, that there was plenty of action. I’ll allow that there was much blocking and even, why not, the many inches — but there was never any hockey to the thing. No ice, no skates, nothing approximating a deke or shot, no rules, no penalties, no saves by the goalies. It was slow, rhythmless, much interrupted. It was only like hockey insofar as you could bring your imagination to bear to conjure Cournoyer and Lemaire and Dryden doing what they did and you couldn’t. There was risk in that, too, though: watching the actual Habs on Hockey Night in Canada, I’d find myself muttering at flesh-and-blood #29 for the 16 soft goals he’d allowed down in the rec room. Some of them, he’d hardly even moved.
I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. Frustratingly, and for hours and hours, it was fun.
Michael Winter played in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He grew up there, and goes back. A couple of years ago when he was home he quarried out his old Munro, packed it up, flew it to Toronto. Now he and his son now sometimes carry on in the cause of trying to emancipate those poor old wingers.
I e-mailed Winter when I saw this painting of his. Pretty sure this is the same model I had in Peterborough, I wrote, the one where the puck slotted so pleasingly into the top of the gondola before, after a moment, dropping in for the opening face-off.
He wrote back:
I’m astonished at how my old instincts and training have kicked in, defeating the youngster with passes using finger-twirl muscles I haven’t activated in forty years.
I believe it’s a Munro 1974 model, though I could be off a year or two.
It comes with four teams: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo.
Yes, it has that very satisfying drop of the puck from gondola.
I found it under the stairs in the basement last time I went to Corner Brook.
Air Canada managed to break a corner of it during transport to Toronto, but I’ve patched it. Serge Savard, when he’s digging out the puck, says he doesn’t mind.
Read Winter’s book Into The Blizzard: Walking The Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, I suggest. For scores and updates, find him on Twitter @michaelwinternet34 , or (and) on Instagram, @michaelwinternet.
Nobody likes a New York Rangers nitpicker. Then again, somebody’s going to have to stand up for Ott Heller. And so, just for the record, that’s not him they’ve got pictured in that new Hockey News spread on greatest New York Rangers.
Launched last month, the glossy 130-page special-edition magazine isn’t going to win any prizes for snappy titles. That’s not to dismiss Top 50 Players of All-Time By Franchise outright — on the contrary, this is an ambitious and absorbing undertaking by THN team and historian James Benesh, with lots to interest fans and historical pointillists alike.
Interesting to see Steve Smith (#17) ranked ahead of Connor McDavid (#19) among Edmonton’s superlatives. Fills me with unearned pride, even. How long before McDavid climbs the list to mingle with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri (#s1,2,3)?
The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their centenary celebrations last fall by hoisting Dave Keon to the top of the charts of their Top 100 players. THN begs to differ: to their thinking, Keon drops to number five, behind (at four) Ted Kennedy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, and, tip-top, Syl Apps.
Does Earl Seibert (#7) deserve a higher rung on the Chicago ladder ahead of Chris Chelios and Duncan Keith (#8 and #9)? After reading senior editor Brian Costello’s thoughts on trying to measure players from different eras against one another, I’m probably in. As Benesh says: “There will never be a right answer, never a consensus.”
Which is why, I suppose, some of us decrying the many omissions from the NHL’s centenary list might soon stop steaming from the ears. Benesh, at least, has a place for peerless Frank Nighbor ,and the great Hooley Smith. Glad to see the NHL’s defunct teams in the mix, with lists of the greats who skated for the Montreal Maroons, original Ottawa Senators, California Golden Seals, et al.
It’s with due respect that I note a few scattered errors. Deep into the Quebec Bulldogs/Hamilton Tigers top-ten, it should be Goldie Prodgers rather than the singular Prodger.
And then again back with the Rangers, on page 84. I’m not here to argue that Ott Heller (#22) deserves to be up there at the top of the rankings with fellow defencemen Ching Johnson (#9) and Brian Leetch (#2). It’s just that the photo, seen above, isn’t Heller at all: it’s Bucko McDonald.
They were teammates, it’s true, for a couple of years. After spending most of his career patrolling bluelines for Toronto and Detroit, McDonald arrived in New York in 1943, where he played out his two final NHL seasons on teams captained by Heller. That’s another pickable nit, I’m afraid: Heller only captained the Rangers for three seasons. Succeeding Art Coulter in the fall of 1942, he led the team again in ’43-’44 and ’44-’45 before giving way to Neil Colville.