The fights went on and on. Night after night, Nadine Arseneault kept drawing. Month after month the fists flared; Arsenault kept going in her project to render a portrait of each and every fight that marred the 2018-19 NHL season. For all the talk that bare-knuckle combat is evolving out of hockey’s top tier, it’s not as if peace is exactly prevailing on NHL ice: by the time the regular season had wrapped up in April, Arsenault’s portfolio of punches included more than 200 images.
It’s a grim indictment of hockey’s arcane culture of punishment … unless, no, maybe does the collection amount, instead, to an unflinching celebration of the game’s deep traditions of warrior honour and rightful retribution?
Exactly. Therein lies the rub — and it’s the nub, too, of Arseneault’s interest in hockey violence and the arresting work that it’s generated. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator with a deep and delightful creative imagination, Arseneault is engaged in an ongoing and wide-ranging project of unpacking the game’s vehement instincts and outcomes. She’s doing it on paper and tablet, in ink and paint and fabric and onscreen, manipulating photographs and textiles. In its many diverse parts, the work is fascinating, challenging, provocative, visually rewarding, and — often — beautiful.
“Hockey occupies a big part of my work and personal time,” Arseneault was saying recently, in an e-mail. Her background in editorial design includes work for magazines like Saturday Night, Maclean’s, and the University of Toronto’s Rotman Management magazine. Some of her past hockey-minded work is featured here and here and over here; you can browse her more recent interests and creations on Instagram, here.
With an eye on turning her talents to teaching, she’s also pursuing a masters degree at Toronto’s York University. That’s where the chronicle of last season’s NHL assault and battery fits in. “Hockey and design,” she says, “came as a natural selection of my interests. My research focusses on the visual representation of violence in the history of the NHL,” she says. “The title of my thesis is Reflective Punch: A graphic design examination of the violence in the 2018-19 season of the National Hockey League.”
As her academic work continues, Arseneault is renewing her fight-by-fight chronicle for the 2019-20 NHL season. She’s also starting to introduce her work to the wider world. This very afternoon, in Quebec City, she’s presenting an overview of her hockey vision at the fall meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research.
In the summer gone by, Arseneault also agreed to submit to an interview by e-mail. The questions I asked follow, along with her answers.
How did you decide to draw a season’s worth of NHL fights?
I wanted to see how the fights started, how violent they were, and how they ended. I’ve always been the type of person who watched hockey fights with my hands covering my face while peeking through my fingers to catch glimpses. I thought that if I forced myself to watch them, I might be able to understand them a bit better.
Did you indeed end up drawing every fight from the 2018-19 season?
Yes, all 226 fights. Forgive me, the Jets versus Predators game on October 11, 2018, had two fights in one frame, so I only did 225 actual drawings.
What was the process? Was it a matter of scouring the NHL schedule every night through the season, then sitting down to draw next morning? How did you decide on composition? Looking at a particular fight, what sources did you draw on? How long would it typically take you to complete a drawing?
I watch a lot of hockey, but not every game, so during the 2018-19 hockey season, I started my day with coffee and hockeyfight.com. I checked to see if I missed any fights from the previous evening. Then I watched the fight a few times and finally in slow motion, where I was looking for something interesting to draw. I sketched them using my digital tablet and pen. They took anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to complete, depending on the number of details. Oddly, it became a very meditative process, bordering on obsessive.
For a while you were posting the images as the season went along on Instagram. You didn’t frame them or series there with much (if any) explanation or commentary. Was that on purpose?
Yes, I wrote very little on Instagram because I didn’t want to disclose any of my views. I hoped to offer something different from a photo or video and maybe tempt some reflection. The journal format of the project is even simpler. I designed the information almost like a wedding invitation, with date, the name of the players and teams. The journal was my way of representing a sort of formal agreement between the players.
Looking through the series, I was thinking about my own reactions to hockey violence and how, abstracted from the game, accumulated on the screen, how absurd these clutching/grappling/sneering figures can seem. At the same time, you have elevated these otherwise inglorious moments to works of art. My reaction, of course, won’t be everybody’s. Fans of fighting might see them quite differently — which I’m guessing is a point of yours?
They are totally absurd. Some will see that, but I suspect most won’t. Before starting this project, I thought a lot about the movie Slap Shot and the huge cult following it has among players and fans. Slap Shot was written by Nancy Dowd, who took inspiration from her brother, who played minor-league hockey. What many don’t realize is that Dowd’s objective was to point out how gruesome hockey could be. It’s a comedy, but really it’s a very dark drama. I don’t think she intended to glorify hockey fights. The irony is heavy on how the public digested that movie, and it demonstrated to me how firmly rooted hockey violence is inside hockey culture.
The irony was additionally confirmed to me when in September of 2017, Georges Parros was named head of the Department of Player Safety for the NHL. When he playing in the NHL, Parros was, of course, a fighter, and far from being a model of safety. This left me wondering whether the NHL had any worries at all about players safety when it comes to hockey fights. Adding to the paradox is Parros’ involvement with the clothing line Violent Gentlemen. This is a brand that describes itself as “forged from steel and bound by a code: Respect. It runs deep and courses through the veins of a Violent Gentleman …. From the ice to the Octagon, from the ring to the field we honor the fight, the art, the opponent and the sport. Blood paints a path to the heart. Sweat, a river to the soul.” Violent Gentlemen makes no excuses on how their brand romanticizes “The Code” and idealizes enforcers. That seemed to conflict with the mandate of player safety.
Long explanation. I think most will see me as an artist who idolizes hockey fights. What this offers me is a quick way to uncover people’s opinions about hockey violence by listening to their reactions to the illustrations.
Could we talk about one of the drawings in detail? I was looking at the one of Paul Byron of the Montreal Canadiens, from last March. I remember watching that game and the fight, in which Byron was clearly concussed. You’ve depicted him in the staggering aftermath of that. What do you see in the image when you study it?
In general, I found most fights to be very theatrical — almost to the point of looking rehearsed —with spins, hugs, swinging arms, pulling on jerseys, and missed punches. I also realized how difficult it is to land a decent hit on an opponent. Most ludicrous are the punches with a bare fist on a hard helmet. A lot of the fights felt performed, with qualities of a circus or carnival event.
But some were very difficult to watch, like that fight between Paul Byron and Mackenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers on March 26, 2019. It didn’t last very long. Byron received a hit and fell immediately to the ice. When he got back on his feet, you could tell he was hurt and struggling to keep his balance while leaning on one of the linesmen. He was escorted off the ice and went directly to the dressing room with the help of a member of the Canadiens medical team and a fellow teammate. Byron is a small player, 5’8”, and weighs only 158 pounds. He was mismatched with Weegar, who’s 6’0” and 212 pounds. Any fight where there’s a significant difference in the size of the players makes me cringe.
What have reactions been from people who’ve seen the series?
As expected, on Instagram, I get a lot of fist-pump emojis. But the best reactions are from the non-hockey fans. My thesis advisor, a non-hockey fan, immediately saw homoerotic artwork, but I think many in creative fields often see some sensuality in my work. After she said that, I tried to look for poses to encourage that thought. I’m not sure how many will detect it, but I did sneak them in there.
Did your perspective change from beginning to end, either on the project itself and what you wanted to achieve and/or on hockey violence?
The short answer is yes, my perspective changed a lot, but my feelings about hockey fighting did not. The difference is in my explanation of why I find hockey violence troubling. It also opened up many more questions about the reasons why the fights are so popular amongst fans. Most stunning was the lack of consideration from the fans who like hockey fights: they seem to possess zero concerns for any potential injuries. On January 29, 2019, Trent Frederic played his first game for the Bruins and got into his first NHL fight with Brandon Tanev of the Winnipeg Jets. The camera scanned the reaction of Frederic’s parents standing in the stands and showed them smiling and clapping. I’m still troubled by watching that type of response from parents.
I’m often surprised by things I didn’t include in the illustrations: the reaction of the crowd, especially from small children. I observed a mom and son sitting in the front row looking very upset by the fighting on the ice. Their expressions were what you would expect from people witnessing a fight outside the walls of an ice arena. Watching them at that moment made the violence feel very real to me. Another instance was when I saw a young boy and girl sitting next to each other. The boy was jumping in excitement while the little girl seemed disturbed by the fight. In a split second, her expression changed, and she joined in the smiling and jumping. It made me wonder about peer pressures when attending games and how the roar of a crowd can be confusing. All the fights had countless of people filming with their smartphones while watching through their tiny screens. I wonder if any of them even watched the video afterwards and if so, what they thought about it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.