bruce bennett: have to get up in the morning, shoot a hockey game each day

He’s been called, inevitably, the Wayne Gretzky of hockey photography, as well as the Einstein. Both are meant to measure and honour Bruce Bennett’s rinkside genius with a camera, of course; the latter pays additional tribute to his grey head of mad-scientist hair.

Whichever way you want to label him, there’s no disputing that Bennett, who turned 60 this year, is hockey’s pre-eminent modern-day photographer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he got his first assignment for The Hockey News in 1974. By the end of last hockey season, he’d photographed 4,678 NHL games, along with dozens of Olympic, international, junior and college games. If you’re a hockey fan, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the best hockey images you’ve seen over the past 40 years were formed and frozen in Bennett’s camera.

After 30 years in the business, Bennett sold his business to Getty Images, for whom he continues to shoot and oversee hockey coverage. For Hockey Greatest Photos, he’s chosen 246 images from an archive surpassing two million — “a monumental task,” he writes in his Backword here — to assemble what is a stunning scrapbook of hockey history.

As is usual for him at this time of year, Bruce Bennett has his camera in hand this fall and his eye on hockey players. When Puckstruck caught up to him late last week, he was en route from New York to Toronto for the weekend’s Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies. Via e-mail, we questioned and he answered:

I won’t ask you outright what your favourite image is in the book (though you’re free to mention it), but what about this: is there one, to you, that best captures the essence of the game?

Wow. Good question and since there are 246 favorite images in the book, your twist works well. And at least I have a few minutes to page through and pick one. The logical conclusion of any sporting event is that there is a winner, and a loser. That is summed up with my photograph of Henrik Lundqvist, alone in the crease as the Los Angeles Kings celebrate their Cup victory around him. The essence of the perfect sports photo that captured jubilation and dejection. And number two, if you would allow me, is an image from last season as Alex Ovechkin dives to hit the puck past Lundqvist. To me the image summarizes the dedication, perseverance and tenacity that it takes to be successful in this sport. And seeing Ovechkin’s eyes following the puck is a bonus.

Did you admire particular hockey photographers as a boy and/or as a young photographer? Your forebears behind a camera at the rink include many great names, from Turofsky to Bier to Brodeur. Is there one whom you especially admire? Is that a hockey photograph of someone else’s that’s a favourite of yours?

I was an Ansel Adams fan growing up and as I started my hockey career I became more aware of the hockey photographers around me. Among them was another Long Island native Joe DiMaggio who mentored me and I learned so much from him about photography and life in general. Then there was Mel DiGiacomo who was, and still is, a creative genius. He moved from hockey to tennis and then on to photojournalism and is the epitome of an “old master” shooting black-and-white images that tug at the heartstrings. And yes David Bier and Denis Brodeur were two guys who I admired as much for their willingness to share techniques and knowledge as I did for their immense talent.

How does hockey rate on the chart of hard-to-photograph sports? What’s the biggest challenge?

It would be easy for me to say it’s the hardest but I’m probably not one to judge since my experience with other sports is limited. But many other photographers have said that the combination of playing in low light venues, the speed of the game, its unpredictable nature and the poor photo positions certainly make this a real challenge.

Have advances in photographic equipment made your job easier over the years? Anything that’s been lost along the way, or is it altogether better to be shooting now than in the 1970s?

I really can’t think of anything about photography that was better when I started. The natural evolution of the equipment, along with the entrance into the digital age has changed the profession in countless ways. Improvements in equipment included moving from manual focus to autofocus and then the continual improvements in autofocus, sharper lenses, and faster motor drives have been great advances. As for the digital cameras, the use of digital cards with the ability to shoot thousands of images before reloading, seeing instantly what you’ve captured (or missed!), and being enable to shoot high-quality images in lower light situations have all improved the craft of sports photography.

Is there a shot you didn’t get that haunts you?

Countless images lost — in fact a game doesn’t go by that I regret something I missed. I do remember one specific one maybe ten years ago but don’t even remember the teams. It is always important to fill the frame and get in tight. On this image I was filling the frame as two guys stood in front of the net. A floating shot towards the net came in very high and both guys lifted off like basketball players going to the net. And there they were maybe three feet off the ice … and I cut their heads off! But like a goaltender you need to clear your head when you miss one or you won’t be prepared for the next shot. Have to just shake it off!!

Do you play?

Nope. I played through high school and college and a few times a year for many years after that until I was about 40. Then at one pickup game after I miraculously moved around some guy, he dove and slashed me on my high school style shinguards. I realized then that I wasn’t that interested in playing anymore. Have to get up in the morning and be physically able to shoot a hockey game each day!!

Hockey’s Greatest Photos: The Bruce Bennett Collection
The Hockey News, Photographs by Bruce Bennett
(Juniper/ Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., C$39.95/US$34.95)