the greatest job in the world: the year tony harris spent painting 100 hockey greats

Standing Pat: Tony Harris’ NHL100 rendition of Pat LaFonatine.

(A version of this post appeared on November 18, 2017, on page D1 of The New York Times under the headline “The Best on Ice, Preserved in Oil.”)

OTTAWA — A hundred years after the National Hockey League was born in Montreal’s grandest hotel, the Windsor, the league went back to where it all began in November.

The hotel is gone, but the adjacent train station is still there, next door to the Montreal Canadiens’ home rink at the Bell Centre.

Gathering there — on paper, at least — are the 100 players deemed to be the best to have played in the NHL.

For the past year, the artist Tony Harris has been at his easel trying to translate the speed and color and glory of hockey through paint and paper.

In mid-November he finished the final two 11-inch-by-14-inch portraits, depicting Montreal Canadiens speedy winger Yvan Cournoyer and the inimitable Wayne Gretzky in the Edmonton Oilers’ blue and orange. Over the weekend of November 18-19, all 100 paintings will be shown together in public for the first time.

A panel of 58 hockey insiders voted on the top 100 list, which was revealed in January. A certain amount of debate ensued. Whither Frank Nighbor? Where have you gone, Joe Thornton? No Evgeni Malkin — really?

But for the most part, the list was not controversial. Gordie Howe is there, and Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Howie Morenz, Ken Dryden and the rest — 76 living and 24 deceased.

Six of the players are skating still, including Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the perennial Jaromir Jagr. Most of the players date to the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, with just a single representative (goalie Georges Vézina) from that first season in 1917-18.

Commissioner Gary Bettman hatched the idea for the paintings last fall. Harris, 53, has called the assignment “the greatest job I could ever get.”

“I guess it was a shock,” he said, recalling the initial discussion when he realized he would be putting aside all other professional work for the year. “But it was a cool call.”

Since the NHL announced the art project in February, two new paintings have been posted on NHL.com each Monday.

Studious: Tony Harris at work in his Ottawa studio in February of 2017.

The studio at Harris’s Ottawa home claims a basement room that the morning lights through high windows. A wall-filling TV is tuned, always, to wherever in the world there is a golf tournament.

One of the action figurines presiding over Harris’s work space is a six-inch Chicago Blackhawks goaltender from the early 1970s. Harris was in the third grade back then at Lakefield Elementary, about 90 minutes northeast of Toronto. He liked to draw. And like many Canadian 8-year-olds, he also collected hockey cards.

“The only one I could find with my name on it was Tony Esposito’s,” Harris said.

Sketching the Chicago goalie over and over again, he turned himself into a Blackhawks fan. And when the time came to suit up for minor hockey, Harris knew he would follow his namesake to the net.

I was at school with Harris, a couple of years behind him, and I can vouch for his goaltending chops: he was good. Set amid fields and forests, next to a lake called Katchawanooka, Lakefield College School is known by those who are fond of it as the Grove. As the son of a beloved English teacher there, Harris grew up on campus at the private boarding school before he started as a student there in grade nine.

Two of his mentors at the Grove were teachers who meant a lot even to those of us who didn’t end up painting portraits or skating on NHL ice. Bob Armstrong taught History and Economics. A former NHL defenceman for the Boston Bruins, he was also the hockey coach.

Harris’ Mark Messier

When the art teacher, Richard Hayman, wasn’t commanding the school’s busy art room, he could be found ranging soccer fields and cricket pitches as coach of Lakefield’s varsity teams. “To this day I’ve never taken an art lesson from anybody other than Richard,” Harris said, an echo of awe in his voice. “I still don’t think I’m even close to what he could do. He was just so ridiculously talented. But his gift was also in teaching. And thank God that was his calling, because he was so important for me.”

One of Hayman’s imperatives, and Lakefield’s, Harris said, was: “Here was a place you could be an athlete and an artist. It was really the whole point of being able to not pigeonhole yourself into this is what you’re supposed to be, or how it’s supposed to go.”

He admitted he was not a good student, and was happiest outdoors.

“If you were inside, reading was like the worst thing for me, so I would grab a ‘Sports Illustrated’ and draw,” Harris said. “I found something that I could do and I just kept doing it.”

He played quarterback in college, and had a short junior stint in the nets of the Kingston Canadians of the Ontario Hockey League. Then he followed his father into the classroom. There was just one problem: “I just felt like I was back in school again,” Harris said. “I thought why am I doing this? So I left.”

When he took up painting, he said, he did not think of it as a real job.

“The thing that saved me was golf — painting golf courses,” Harris said. “There just wasn’t anybody else doing it in Canada.”

His love of the game and his skill with a club blended well with what he could do on canvas. Lots of people in and around Toronto, as it turned out, were eager to pay for paintings of a favorite hole at a chosen course.

“All of a sudden I went from a struggling artist to having as much work as I wanted,” Harris said.

He is not complaining now, but after almost a decade of that work, he said, “I was really getting tired a painting golf courses.”

The transition to hockey did not happen all at once. It was accelerated around 2006, when Harris painted a portrait of Orr from a photograph he had seen on the cover of Stephen Brunt’s book, Searching For Bobby Orr. To Harris, the picture was remarkable because it looked like a painting; the realism of his painting wowed those who saw it.

Soon Harris was painting less grass and more ice. His commissions for the N.H.L. Players’ Association came to include an annual portrait of the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award, given to the league’s outstanding player as voted by N.H.L.P.A. members.

More and more, he was getting calls to commemorate career milestones for players in Ottawa and around the N.H.L. When the Senators’ Chris Phillips played his 1,000th N.H.L. game in 2012, the team presented him with a Harris portrait that showed the defenceman fending off Ovechkin, Crosby, Lemieux, and Gretzky.

Phillips, who retired in 2016, now has three Harris prints hanging on his walls, and has commissioned paintings of the Canadian prairies where he grew up.

“He really understands the little details that are important to a player,” Phillips said, “and he portrays them with such precision.”

Colourings: A view into Harris’ paint drawer.

If Harris has a guiding principle in his painting of athletes, it might be this: “I’ve got to do something,” he said, “that if I was the guy, if it was me, that’s the painting I’d want to see of myself.”

He laughed when he talked about the call he got in 2016 from the Chicago Blackhawks.

As reigning Stanley Cup champions, they had been invited to visit the White House. The team had prospered during President Barack Obama’s two terms, making two previous White House visits after their 2010 and 2013 championships. President Obama already had plenty of Blackhawks swag; this time he was going to get a painting.

Harris quickly sketched up an idea that February and emailed it to the Blackhawks; he proposed presenting a triptych of the team’s Stanley Cup parades.

“I said, ‘When do you want to do this?’ They said, ‘Well, next Thursday.’ And this was … Thursday,” Harris said.

Working 20-hour days, he got it done — framed, too — by the next Tuesday.

Chicago Coach Joel Quenneville, a friend of Harris’s, reported on what went on in the Oval Office: the president told the Blackhawks that he was going to take down George Washington to put up Harris’s painting.

“I said, ‘No, he didn’t,’” Harris recounted. “Joel said, ‘Hand to God, Tony, he said it.’”

He is wary of tallying up the hours he spent at the easel painting the NHL’s top 100 players. “When I start thinking about it, the math just gives me a headache,” he said. “Twenty hours or 25 hours probably, per?”

He would rather recall the simple pleasures of doing the work, and the distractions he will continue to savour.

Out of the blue he got a call from Tony Esposito, who is among the 100 along with brother Phil. They talked for 15 minutes.

What about? “How goaltending used to hurt,” Harris said. “You had to catch pucks, because if you didn’t, they were going to hit your body, and if they hit your body, you were going to be in pain, because the equipment was so terrible.”

In November, as he approached the last brush stroke, Harris contemplated what it all meant to him, what he had achieved.

He tried out a couple of words — iconic, legacy, “all those buzzwords,” he said — but none of them felt right.

Seeing the exhibition in Montreal, all 100 paintings on the wall together for the first time, he said, “That’s going to be spectacular.

“I just want someone to stand there and say, ‘That’s cool.’ And if it’s Pat LaFontaine and he takes a look at his painting, I’d like him to say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”

Namesake: Harris’ portrait of Tony O, his childhood hockey-card hero.

 

(LaFontaine and Esposito images courtesy of Tony Harris. Messier and paintbox photos by Stephen Smith)