upended

It was the final weekend of the NHL’s 1959-60 season, towards the end of March. On the eve of the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a couple of games to go before they got down to the business of chasing the Stanley Cup. Sunday they played their final regular-season game in Detroit, forging a 3-2 win in which goaltender Johnny Bower was the acknowledged star. Bower hadn’t done badly the night before either, back home at Maple Leaf Gardens, outduelling Chicago’s Glenn Hall in a 1-0 win that saw Frank Mahovlich set up Red Kelly’s winning goal. Writing it up for the hometown Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod recognized that “Pierre Pilote, most underrated defenceman in the league was a standout for the Hawks in a game that had occasional flurries of high-speed action, excellent goalkeeping, fine defensive work plus solid bodychecking.” A photographer from the Turofsky’s Alexandra Studio’s caught some of that here. Reproduced in 100: A Century of NHL Memories (2017), an anthology of photographs drawn from the vasty vaults of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, this image shows Pilote upending Leafs’ right winger Gerry James while Hall secures the puck in his crease. The other Hawks shown are (back left, wearing number 8) winger Murray Balfour alongside defenceman Moose Vasko. Obscured, mostly, by James and Pilote, that’s Bobby Hull in back. He didn’t make the cut at all when football star and artist Tex Coulter came to translate the scene to canvas. Then again, Glenn Hall didn’t fare a whole lot better in the painted version, here below, that would adorn the cover of the NHL’s 1961 Official Annual, snatching away Hall’s real-save save to pose him looking back, too late, at the goal he couldn’t foil.

(Top image: Imperial Oil/Turofsky Collection, from 100 : A Century of NHL Memories, Natural Treasure Series, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

the winnipeg arena’s royal quandary: if the queen herself walked in, would she know who it was?

Elizabeth The First: Gilbert Burch’s original Winnipeg Arena portrait, c. 1979. (Image: Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18 A81-012, Box 64, Folder 6315, Item 18)

A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.

What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.

Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.

I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”

In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.

queen winnipeg 72

Royal Highness: The Winnipeg Arena’s original, non-Burch portrait of Queen Elizabeth presides over the pre-game anthems ahead of Team Canada’s Summit Series game against the Soviet Union on September 6, 1972.

This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”

Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.

“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.

Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”

He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.

So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).

By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.

QE2: Gilbert Burch puts the finishing touches of his second 1979 portrait for the Winnipeg Arena. (Image: Peter Levick, Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18, Box 2, Folder 49, Item 9)

Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”

Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”

The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.

That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk  then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.

Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.

finn factor

Twenty-six pucks failed to get by Pekka Rinne last night, though of course — probably — likely — what I really mean is that it was one single puck, possibly a couple, or three, that didn’t succeed, 26 times. Not that Rinne doesn’t deserve credit for his preventative part in Nashville’s big 2-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, just saying the puck(s) need to be bearing some of the responsibility here, too. It was, in any case, the seventh instance this season of complete puck futility involving Rinne, the best goaltender ever to have come out of Kempele, which is near Oulu, in Northern Ostrobothnia, in Finland. His record in the last 19 games he’s played is 17-1-1. When Adam Vingan of The Tennessean talked to Rinne post-game, the goaltender reached into the post-game loot-bag of triumphant clichés and extracted this one: “A lot of good things are happening to us right now, so we’ve just got to enjoy it right now.”

The portrait here, from the 2017 playoffs, is Toronto illustrator Dave Murray’s. For more of his work, visit at www.davemurrayillustration.com.

 

all the maurice richards in red, white, and blue

So I was obliged to wear the Maple Leafs sweater. When I arrived on the rink, all the Maurice Richards in red, white, and blue came up, one by one, to take a look. When the referee blew his whistle I went to take my usual position. The captain came and warned me I’d be better to stay on the forward line. A few minutes later the second line was called; I jumped onto the ice. The Maple Leafs sweater weighed on my shoulders like a mountain. The captain came and told me to wait; he’d need me later, on defence. By the third period I still hadn’t played; one of the defencemen was hit in the nose with a stick and it was bleeding. I jumped on the ice; my moment had come! The referee blew his whistle; he gave me a penalty. He claimed I’d jumped on the ice when there were already five players. That was too much! It was unfair! It was persecution! It was because of my blue sweater! I struck my stick against the ice so hard it broke.

• from Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories (1979)

(Images: The Hockey Sweater sculpture (c. 1989) by Jean Matras, from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, was part of the Canadian Museum of History’s 2017exhibition “Hockey in Canada: More Than Just a Game.”)

net absence

Bad tidings from Chicago: the Blackhawks lost again last night, shut out by Tampa Bay, which leaves them mired at the bottom of the NHL’s Central Division. As of this morning, Hockey Reference has the team’s chances of making the playoffs at a gloomy 15.6 per cent.

Slightly better news, though maybe not really: goaltender Corey Crawford was seen headed to the Blackhawks’ dressing room at the United Center last night. Crawford, whose upper body has been injured in a not-divulged area, in an undisclosed way, such that he hasn’t played since December 27, was in civilian clothes, wearing a cap. He didn’t get into anything resembling the goaling garb depicted above let alone out on the ice, but his presence at the rink did give rise to plenty of speculation that he might be close to — maybe? — returning, whereupon he can get to work rescuing his team’s season by hauling them into the playoffs. This follows a report from two weeks ago from until Mark Lazerus of the Sun-Times, who found three sources to tell him that Crawford’s symptoms are “vertigo-like,” and that he’s probably out for the season. John Dietz of Chicago’s Daily Herald was on hand last night to hear Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville tell reporters … not much. Crawford is “getting better.” It was, Quenneville confessed, “good to see him.”

Toronto illustrator Dave Murray worked up this Crawford portrait last spring, as a part of a series focussed on 2017 playoffs. For more of Murray’s work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/

 

webmaster

Spiderman: Tiny Thompson was nine-and-a-half seasons into his career as an NHL puck-repudiator this month in 1937 when the Associated Press checked in with him to report that the Boston Bruins’ goaltend had worn the same pair of pads for 12 seasons. During that time, he had (by his own estimate) stopped 125,000 shots. “They’ve been repaired so often,” the AP alerted, “that there’s nothing left of the original set but the stuffing.” Thompson said he had no plans to buy a new pair any time soon. That must be them depicted here, in Nadine Arsenault’s hand-embroidered interpretation of an archival image from the late ’30s. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator with a deep and delightful creative imagination, Arsenault shows her hockey portfolio at http://www.nadine.design.

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)