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)

this week: surviving a meteor strike

CAN_JM

P.K. Subban was dining on liver in Paris, Adam Vingan of The Tennessean reports, when he got the word last Wednesday that the Montreal Canadiens had traded him to Nashville’s Predators.

“Quoi?” tweeted Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, when he heard the news. The online shock was matched only by the outrage: “La twittosphère s’enflamme à propos de l’échange de P.K. Subban” was a Journal de Montreal headline from the following day.

“So that Subban trade really happened, eh?” wrote Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Principal Secretary and a prominent Habs fan. “Call me old fashioned,” groused another, actor and director Jay Baruchel, “but it’s more fun to watch PK Subban play hockey than it is to watch Michel Therrien coach hockey. #fuckingHabs”

Also, in other news, the Toronto Maple Leafs convened a camp for their brightest prospects this week, in Niagara Falls. Mitch Marner was there, and William Nylander, along with, of course, Auston Matthews, drafted first overall in June’s draft. Reported the Associated Press: Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill “quickly noticed a flaw in Matthews’ stride: his left shoulder wasn’t coming across enough.”

Subban’s personality was too big for Montreal, said The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur.

Andrew Berkshire, a writer for Sportsnet who also commands editorial content for the analytics firm Sportlogiq: “The Montreal Canadiens have made possibly the worst trade in the history of their franchise, for no reason at all.”

“Unbelievable,” Subban told Adam Vingan, regarding his foie de Paris. About the trade, he said he felt closer to winning the Stanley Cup than he had to before. “I’m just happy to be in a situation where I can excel and feel good about myself coming to the rink every day.”

“I don’t want to take anything away from P.K.,” Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said when he stepped up to face the media in Montreal. “He’s made the way he is and he’s a good person.”

“This is the Roy debacle all over again,” declared Brendan Kelly in The Montreal Gazette. “It’s the worst move by the Habs since Réjean Houle dealt Patrick Roy to the Colorado Avalanche for a bag of pucks in 1995. It took the franchise years to recover from that horrible trade.”

roch pkstrk

David Poile disagreed — but then he was the guy on the other end, Nashville’s GM. “I’m a general manager,” he said of Subban on the day, “but someday I’d like to be a fan, and he is a guy that I would pay money to see.”

“We never had a problem with P.K.,” was something else Marc Bergevin said. “You have 23 players on your roster and they’re all different. They all bring different things. One of the most important things for me is punctuality. We never had a problem with P.K. with that.”

At NHL.com, Adam Kimelman wrote about an 18-year-old draft prospect. His lede:

After surviving a meteor strike, moving to Canada became a bit easier for right wing Vitaly Abramov of Gatineau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Abramov led Gatineau and indeed all QMJHL rookies in goals, assists, and points (93) last season. Columbus ended up drafting him. Kimelman:

Abramov was at school in his hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 when a meteor exploded over the city. The meteor was between 49 and 55 feet in size, with an estimated mass of 7,000 to 10,000 tons, according to CNN.

The estimated energy released by the meteor’s explosion was 300-500 kilotons, or about 20 times the estimated amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

“I was in school and all the windows in my class crashed,” Abramov said. “All windows in the city was gone. … It was like big panic because it was something none of us had ever seen. But after that it was fine when everyone said it was a meteorite and we’re still alive.

“Normal school day and a meteor came down.”

“I will not go into detail why we think we are a better team,” Marc Bergevin told that press conference, “but we feel we are a better team.”

kunlunIn China, during an official visit by President of Russia Vladimir Putin, the Kontinental Hockey League announced that it would add a Beijing franchise to the league, HC Kunlun Red Star, for the 2016-17 season.

Other news from Montreal: the Canadiens acquired winger Andrew Shaw from the Chicago Black Hawks for a pair of draft picks. Known for his energy and a talent for annoyance, Shaw is also remembered for having been suspended in this year’s playoffs for uttering an anti-gay slur. He talked to reporters on a conference call soon afterwards, including Mark Lazerus of The Chicago Sun-Times, who heard him say that Bergevin had been in on drafting him, Shaw, as an assistant GM in Chicago. “He likes the rat in me,” Shaw said.

One new teammate Shaw mentioned was Brendan Gallagher.

“Me and Gallagher have had some fun battles,” he said. “Now I’m excited to be on his side to annoy people together, I guess. It’ll be a fun team to play with. I’m pretty excited about it. Can’t wait for September.”

The Calgary Flames, meantime, drafted 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, a.k.a. son of a Keith. “He’s a pain in the ass,” said Brian Burke, chief of Flames hockey operations. “We don’t have enough guys who are pains in the ass… I like guys who are pains in the ass.”

For his part, Tkachuk fils mentioned to a Calgary Herald reporter that he models his game on Corey Perry’s. Wes Gilbertson:

And if he can, indeed, blossom into a Perry sort, he might not have to pay for a meal in Cowtown for his entire life.

After all, Perry is a guy who seems to routinely score 30-plus goals each season, never shies away from a collision and, thanks to his aggravating style, has probably been called four-letter words that most of us don’t even know.

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2016 class last week: Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon, Pat Quinn, and Sergei Makarov. Here’s Katie Baker, at The Ringer, on the erstwhile Number 88:

Lindros was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, after six years of mostly silly rejection, and it’s about damn time. Ever since he was a teenager, the center was an unceasing, and worthy, obsession of the hockey world. He was huge (6-foot-4, 240) and hugely skilled, capable of playing a style of hockey that seemed more of an abstract ideal than an actual bodily possibility. (Instead of using the 20/80 scale to evaluate prospects, hockey scouts ought to just rate them from 1 to Eric Lindros.) He was, for a time, hockey’s avatar. In the biopic he’d be played by Channing Tatum, and you’d spoil the viewing experience for your kids because you’d keep pestering them: No, you don’t understand, there was no one like him in his prime.

 What should a Hall of Fame be? This is a question that all sports face; baseball has a whole steroid-fueled generation that it may never decide how to properly judge. Should the place feel like an encyclopedic compendium of a sport’s most successful players as defined by known, unassailable metrics — career length and Cup wins included — or should it have more laid-back shrine-to-the-glory-of-hockey, this-is-what-things-were-like-back-then vibes? I’m an extremist, but my ideal Hall of Fame would be the best kind of museum, the type that immerses you in the context, ugly and beautiful, of all of hockey’s eras. Hell, put an interactive NHL on Fox glowing-puck exhibit next to Lindros’s bust. Few things are so specifically, disgustingly mid-’90s.

“I’m not P.K. Subban,” Shea Weber said when the media in Canada turned its attention to him, “I’m not going to try to be. I’m going to bring my hard work and attitude and try to bring this team some wins. The biggest thing I want to do is win. I know that they’ve got a good base there, obviously one of the best goaltenders in the world, some top-end forwards, and I’m just excited to be joining that group.”

Continue reading

hockey night in the east room: when prime ministers and presidents dine

wh cup

Trophy Case: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes (and gloats over) the Stanley Cup to the White House’s East Room on February 18, 2016. The Chicago Blackhawks were also on hand.

“Canada exports two things to the United States: hockey players and cold fronts. And Canada imports two things from the United States: baseball players and acid rain.”
• Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, speaking at a lunch ahead of Major League’s Baseball’s 1982 All-Star Game, as reported by Michael Farber of the Montreal’s Gazette

Thirty-nine years after Justin Trudeau’s father last dined officially at the White House, Canada’s prime minister will end a busy day of Washington business with a state dinner tonight at President Barack Obama’s place. While we’ve been alerted to what’s on the menu — baked Alaskan halibut casserole; Colorado lamb — what we don’t know at this hour is just how much hockey the two leaders will be talking.

The White House has a long and nuanced hockey history. But ahead of the festivities in the executive mansion’s East Room, a review of earlier White House state dinners for Canadian prime ministers tells us that the game has come up but rarely in the history of official talking — the toasts, the speeches of welcome — that go on when PMs and presidents converge in Washington.

Before tonight, Canadian prime ministers have banqueted seven times at the White House. The first time was in November of 1945 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King paid a visit to Harry Truman. Discussing with reporters a telephone call he’d had with the PM a month before the dinner, Truman was asked whether they’d talked atomic bombs at all. “We discussed every subject,” said the President, “in which Canada and the United States are interested, but I am not at liberty to make any statement.”

Which all but confirms that the two leaders were engaged in bilateral talks regarding how well Bill Mosienko was clicking that fall with the brothers Bentley, Doug and Max, for Chicago’s Black Hawks. Come the actual state dinner — well, British PM Clement Attlee was on hand for that, too, so just to be polite at that point in the post-war world they had more pressing matters to talk about

It continued quiet in terms of high-level hockey-talking. John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower supped together in 1960 without exchanging so much as a token hockey cliché.

Same thing when Diefenbaker met with John F. Kennedy in Washington on February 20, 1961. The Trail Smoke Eaters were over in Czechoslovakia preparing to play for the world championships; in Detroit, Gordie Howe had just scored his 500th NHL goal. The two leaders had no comment, either way.

Lyndon Johnson hosted Lester Pearson on January 22 of 1964. This was a luncheon, mind you, in the White House’s State Dining Room, which means, well, I guess, early in the day and therefore not as momentous a meal as dinner? There were toasts, and President Johnson began his like this:

The Prime Minister asked me if I was going to make a speech and I told him I was going to attempt to, not over three minutes in length, but I would expect loud and vociferous applause.

I choose to feel that this is not just a meeting today between two heads of government, but rather a reunion of neighbors who meet around the dining table in friendship and with affection. Mr. Prime Minister, we in this country are proud of your achievements and we are joined in your purpose. We have applauded your craftsmanship and approved of your leadership from your major role in the creation of the United Nations to your winning of the Nobel Peace Prize and even your performance as defenseman on the Oxford hockey team.

None of the leaders went on the record regarding Bobby Orr, Miracles On Ice, or indeed any hockey matter during Pierre Trudeau’s successive state dinners with Richard Nixon (1969) and Jimmy Carter (1977).

It wasn’t a state occasion in December of 1974 when Trudeau supped at the White House — The Globe and Mail described it as “a stag black-tie dinner” given by President Gerald Ford. They were in the Blue Room, and at 9.15, postprandially, the President toasted his guest. Trudeau responded:

Mr. President, gentlemen, and friends:

When Canadians travel abroad, Mr. President, they spend lots of time explaining to other people how they are different from the Americans. There is a great belief in other lands that Canadians and Americans are exactly the same. I am particularly distressed to find this when I am dealing with the Common Market. We are different, and we have different problems and different economic requirements.

But it does happen that we have to show how similar we are and how close our two peoples are. And the best example I can find, when I have to explain that kind of thing, is to talk about in summer, in the baseball stadium in Montreal where tens of thousands of Canadians get together to cheer for the Canadian team against the visiting American team when every one of the players on both sides is American! [Laughter]

When I have stayed in some of your American cities, it is another story. In winter at your hockey forums, they cheer for the local team, and probably 95 percent of the players on both sides are Canadians — and the best ones.

And this, I think, shows really how close the people are in their goals, in their ways of living, in their love of sports, in their values, even in standards of their own lives.

Brian Mulroney was known to vary a Trudeauvian theme or two: to most Americans, he once said, Canada means snowstorms and Wayne Gretzky.

He followed Trudeau père to the White House, too, when Ronald Reagan had him over, twice, in the 198os.

“Mr. Prime Minister, welcome,” President Reagan said in 1986 when Mulroney stopped in for supper for the first time in 1986. “Allons-y a travail.” Mulroney returned in April of 1988 when, again, nowhere in any of the official wordings did anyone have anything to say about hockey.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one feels sure, would have had a quip or two to offer, about John Ross Robertson, Toronto’s old Blue Shirts, Bruce Ridpath, but our erstwhile hockey-historian-in-chief never made it to the White House for a state dinner.

And tonight? The chances that there will be mentions of hockey when the leaders rise to speak their pieces are, I’m confident, fair to good, if only to continue the bright banter they began last month.

As presidents like to do, Barack Obama had the Stanley Cup over in February to congratulate the holders from Chicago. “It is always fun to have the Stanley Cup here,” he said in remarks that included thoughtful tributes to Kimmo Timonen and Scott Darling. “It truly is the best trophy in sports.” With the Blackhawks having won three Cups during his presidency, he felt he was owed some thanks. “I think it’s pretty clear the kind of luck I’ve brought to this team.”

He was already thinking of tonight, too. “And,” he said, “by the way, we’ve got a state dinner with Canada coming up, so we may just leave it right in the middle of the room.” [Laughter and applause] “We’ll see. We could gloat a little bit. Just to gloat a little bit.” [Applause]

Prime Minister Trudeau wasn’t long in replying, on Twitter:

trudeau obama

 

 

 

hinterland who’s who

Who's Asking? The artist previously as #99 is the only hockey player to have made it into a new series of illustrated biographies for young readers, if not the only Canadian (as long as you're willing to count Alexander Graham Bell). Others in the line-up include Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, both Barack and Michelle Obama,  J.K. Rowling, Bob Dylan, and Jesus. (Illustration: Nancy Harrison)

Who’s Asking? The Conservative campaign mascot previously known as #99 is the only hockey player to have made it into a new American series of illustrated biographies for young readers, if not the only Canadian (as long as you’re willing to count Alexander Graham Bell). Others in the line-up include Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, both Barack and Michelle Obama, J.K. Rowling, Bob Dylan, and Jesus. (Illustration: Nancy Harrison)

remarks by the president (laughter)

Embed from Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings play the Capitals tonight in Washington, but yesterday they were at the White House, visiting President Barack Obama, as you do when you’ve won the Stanley Cup. Now’s not the time to wonder why the tradition doesn’t extend to Rideau Hall and the Governor-General, too; would it also be impolitic (or at least not cool) to mention that 14 of 23 2014 Kings to have their names etched into the Cup are Canadian-born to just five Americans? Yes, probably.

The Kings took L.A.’s MLS soccer champions, the Galaxy, along with them. From the hockey players the President received (1) an engraved silver stick and (2) a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup with all those 23 (mostly Canadian) names on it. A full transcript of the President’s remarks is available, including soccer quips and praises. From his hockey narration, including original White-House sound effects:

The Kings needed overtime to win their championship — they needed two of them, in fact. And that was the easy part — just to get to the Finals, the Kings had to win three straight Game 7s — all on the road. They dug themselves out of a 3-0 hole against San José in the first round — they’re laughing because they’re thinking, man, let’s try to do it easier next time. (Laughter.) In the Conference Final, they beat my Blackhawks, which is unfortunate. (Laughter.) I mean, first of all, in L.A., there’s not even any ice really. (Laughter.) So you’d think, like, Chicago, where it’s probably 10 degrees below zero today, at least we’d get some hockey. But we’ve won a couple so I can’t complain.

The Kings have done the unthinkable — they have turned a city with no snow and no ice and no winter into a hockey town — (laughter) — complete with an outdoor game in Dodger Stadium. They have done it with a team that L.A. fans have embraced — guys like goalie Jonathan Quick, playoff MVP Justin Williams. The first line of Brown and Kopitar and Gaborik, and Jeff Carter and his “hockey smile.” And of course, Coach Sutter and his one-liners with the press. (Laughter.) I’ve tried the one-liners, by the way, with the press and it never seems to work. (Laughter.)

 

dragging the referee, unassisted, off the ice

politics

Barry Blitt’s illustration accompanied “O Quebec,” Mordecai Richler’s Letter From Canada published in the May 30, 1994 edition of The New Yorker.

Politics and hockey share a season in Canada, and it’s one that fills the entire calendar year. Is it any surprise, then, that their respective languages mingle every now and again? If recent history is a guide, politics tends to borrow more of hockey’s idioms than vice-versa. When was the last time you heard Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice praising his penalty-killers for filibustering Vancouver’s powerplay? Speaking of which: is Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis only proroguing the inevitable by not firing coach John Tortorella right now? Not that the politicians always get their metaphors exactly right.

Several recent cases:

• In early February, federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver talked to CTV’s Question Period about his government’s hopes for a decision from U.S. President Barack Obama on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. “I certainly hope he won’t drag the puck,” Oliver said. “We feel that the reasons to go ahead are very strong, that the environmental issues have been dealt with.”

At least, that’s what CTV thought he said. When @ctvqp quoted the remarks on Twitter, @joeoliver1 was quick on the backcheck:

Actually I said I hope he won’t rag the puck.

Once that was cleared up, journalists were all too pleased to join the rush. Here’s Alexander Panetta from The Canadian Press, dateline Washington:

The Canadian government is asking Barack Obama not to “rag the puck” on a Keystone XL decision. But to hear the U.S. administration tell it, the president doesn’t have the puck on his stick, isn’t anywhere near it, and won’t commit to touching it soon.

Nitpicking Minister Oliver’s comments from a strictly hockey point of view, if we’re going to do that, which we are, here’s the thing: it makes no sense to tell the other team what you don’t want them to do. Don’t rag the puck? You might as well ask them not to bother crossing the blue line and trying for a shot on net. If they’re ragging the puck, they’re doing it to baffle and deny you, throw you off your game, waste the time you need to beat them. That’s the whole point of puck-ragging.

Assuming, of course, that Minister Oliver considers President Obama to be on the other team. I guess we should get that clarified for once and for all. If he thinks of him as a teammate, that’s a whole other problem. Unless he himself is the captain of team to the President’s rookie — Alex Ovechkin, say, lecturing Evgeny Kuznetsov. That would work, I guess.

• Also in February: doing his best to explain changes regarding the role of the head of Elections Canada as laid out in the government’s proposed Fair Elections Act, Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre said that it was important that the referee of elections not wear a team jersey.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand was quick to respond: in his view, the bill would “take the referee off the ice,” and might even make it harder for some voters to cast their ballots.

“The only jersey I think I’m wearing, if we have to carry the analogy, I believe is the one with the stripes, white and black,” Mayrand told reporters, who noted his grimace. “What I know from this bill is that the referee will no longer be on the ice.”

Which, of course, the NHL would never allow. Though of course, in a hockey context, the discussion would have been snuffed even as it started. Badmouthing referees is a big no-no, and if Minister Poilievre were a coach, the league would have been slapping a fine on him even as the words were leaving his mouth. Something in the order of $US10,000, maybe, which is what Chicago’s Joel Quenneville was docked in April of 2012 for comments (they included the word “disgrace”) on the refereeing involved when Phoenix’s Raffi Torres hit Marian Hossa? Or what about Tortorella, in his previous job with the New York Rangers, also in 2012: the NHL fined him $US30,000 for his ref-rant that year. Which is not to equate Minister Poilievre and Coach Tortorella: I, for one, have every confidence that the former would have started Roberto Luongo at this year’s Heritage Classic. Continue reading

this week: rattlebrains, eye-gougers, a garbage fire on skates

white house

U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the Chicago Blackhawks to the White House on Monday, as U.S. presidents do when American teams win the Stanley Cup. Dan Rosen from the NHL.com reported:

Upon arrival at the White House the Blackhawks were feted with an exclusive opportunity to mingle through several rooms in the East Wing, including a few that look out onto the South Lawn and one that has a view of the Rose Garden. They took pictures and marveled at the history.

The President greeted the Blackhawks, shook their hands and received a Stanley Cup replica popcorn maker as a gift prior to delivering his remarks.

“These are not just good hockey players,” President Obama said, among other things, “they’re good guys.”

Meanwhile, to the north and over the border, ‏‪@gmbutts started the week in an owly mood, tweeting:

Anybody ever see ‪#Harper on a pair of skates? Beginning to think this ‪#hockey persona is as phony as George W. Bush’s Texas rancher ‪#cdnpoli

Given that the man asking the question was Gerald Butts, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s chief advisor, it probably wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but a follower soon pointed to this all the same.

Could it have been the man himself, defending his own passion? Because author Stephen J. Harper was out that same day promoting his book, A Great Game, on the eve of its publication. Or not out, exactly: he did call in to Toronto’s Sportsnet 590 The Fan to Bob McCown that he calls himself “an amateur hockey historian” and started writing the book “as a pastime, when I needed to turn my mind off from the grind of work.” Asked about the game’s violence, he said: “I’m sorta torn on that.”

“Look, it wouldn’t bother me if we didn’t have fights. I don’t watch hockey for the fights. What I wouldn’t want to see, though, is, you know, situations where teams would pick fights deliberately to get stars off the ice. I think you’ve got to be careful. I don’t like fighting as a strategy, I actually hate it as a strategy but the fact that it happens once in a while in a tough sport is not a surprise.”

Chris Selley from The National Post was one of the first in with a review, come Tuesday. To sum up: “Impressively thorough, very dull, lacks promised insight.”

The Hall of Hockey’s Fame prepared, this week, to welcome a new class that includes Geraldine Heaney, Fred Shero, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan, and Scott Niedermeyer.

On TSN, James Duthie asked Bobby Clarke why had it taken so long for Shero to ascend? Clarke said he didn’t know but his guess was that people blamed the coach for the bullying way the Flyers played in the early 1970s. It wasn’t him, Clarke said: he never told the team to fight. “You did it yourselves?” Duthie said. “On our own,” said Clarke.

“It’s embarrassing,” a Florida centreman said this week, Shawn Matthias, after the coach there, Kevin Dineen, was fired. “I can’t remember the last time we won. There are no positives right now.”

At http://www.habseyesontheprize.com, Andrew Berkshire frowned on a couple of recent Montreal games:

In Minnesota the Habs played well and were undone by bad coaching decisions. In Colorado, it was a garbage fire on skates, and painful to watch.

Over in Britain’s Rapid Solicitors Elite League, the Belfast Giants hosted Cardiff’s Devils a week ago, and …. Sorry, I’m not sure I can go on without first pausing to emphasize that Britain’s Elite League is sponsored by the United Kingdom’s largest personal-injury law firm, who profess online a special focus on Medical and Dental Negligence, Motorcycle Accidents, and Slips & Trips.

Back to Belfast. Cardiff was in town. At 21:36 of the second period, referee Tom Darnell assessed a match penalty to the Devils’ Andrew Conboy for “excessive roughness.” Conboy, 25, hails from Burnside, Minnesota, and he was a draftee of the Montreal Canadiens, playing several seasons for their Hamilton farm team before crossing the Atlantic. The excess of his roughness involved the Giants’ Jeff Mason and an “attempted eye gouge,” for which Conboy was subsequently suspended — banned, the British papers prefer —for 12 games.

The league’s Brendan Shanahan, a Scottish-born former referee named Moray Hanson, was the one to lay down the law. “There is no place for this type of incident in our game,” he said, “and offenders will be suspended accordingly.”

“It’s not just about wins, it’s how we play,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. He told Mark Zwolinski at The Toronto Star what else he wanted from his players:

“We need more compete level, we need more doggedness around the puck, it all has to go up.”

Bad British-league behaviour isn’t new this month: in October, Moray Hanson banished Derek Campbell, 33, for 47 games for his conduct in a game against the Dundee Stars. Sorry: 47 matches. Born in Nepean, Ontario, Campbell was a winger for the Hull Stingrays until, after that game and before the Hanson got in with his sentence, the team dropped him outright.

The Hull Daily Mail called it a fracas; others said it was an incident. It happened this way: Dundee’s Nico Sacchetti boarded Campbell, for which he was ejected from the game; Campbell followed after Sacchetti to the dressing room; Campbell attacked Sacchetti in front of “shocked fans.”

Hanson’s ban broke down this way:

• fighting off the ice (15 matches)
• attempted eye gouge (12 matches)
• knee to the head (10 matches)
• excessive force to the head resulting in an impact to the ice (10 matches).

“I was extremely upset at the time,” Derek Campbell said, once he’d had some time to think about what had happened against Dundee. “But 100 per cent regret what I did in front of fans and little children who were watching the game. I’m a person who plays on emotions, but it’s no excuse.

“As a father of a little girl, I can only apologize to any little girl or boy who was watching and to any fan who felt offended.”

Campbell’s teammate Jeff Smith, from Regina, had his own thoughts about the whole affair:

“I know they are making a point of Soupy, but 47 games, that’s outrageous, I think. I think it’s an absolute joke. It’s a disgrace what Soupy did, but 47 games is just as much a disgrace.”

Who did you hate to play against? Chris Chelios was asked at a Hall of Fame fan-forum this weekend. Easy, he said: Dale Hunter of the Quebec Nordiques.

At USA Today, Kevin Allen reported (this week) that fighting has fallen by 20.5 per cent this season without the NHL’s having done much at all, really, to curb it.

“There are fewer heavyweights now and fewer guys willing to fight, and it just seems like fighting isn’t used as a deterrent the same way it was in the past,” said a wistful Darren McCarty.

There is the new rule that incurs an additional penalty for players who remove their helmets for a fight. “It’s more inconvenient now,” said the NBC commentator Keith Jones, who once skated for Colorado and Philadelphia, “and I wonder if that has had an effect on it. Now a little more thought process has to go into it, rather than the quick reaction.”

Jeff Smith really couldn’t believe it. He was — what’s the word. Speechless? No, not speechless. He was, if anything, speechful:

“I could see for the off-ice stuff, yes, 20 games for that, but the guy played the next day with no marks on his face, there was nothing broken. The off-ice stuff that was absolutely wrong, but 47 games? Last year a guy punched a fan and wasn’t banned, and another player slashed an opponent two-handed and only got three games.”

TV game-show host and hockey fan Pat Sajak weighed in on Ray Emery of the Flyers and his flailing of Washington’s Braden Holtby, tweeting: “Taking a cue from the @NHL, I’m planning to jump Trebek and pummel him in an effort to fire up my staff and prove my manhood.”

Brendan Shanahan spoke up on the same subject. “I hate what Ray Emery did,” the NHL’s Director of Player Safety told Sportsnet’s HockeyCentral At Noon.

NHL veteran Sean Burke — he coaches the goalies now in Phoenix — was talking, too, about Emery:

“What he did to Holtby, that’s not the kind of stuff that is good at all for the game. The biggest joke is that they named him the third star in the game. To me, that’s classless, and whoever picked that, that’s making a mockery of the game.

“That was just bullying. When you punch a guy 10 times in the back of the head, that’s not being tough. Tough is a goalie sticking up for a teammate because he’s getting abused or something happens in the course of the game where the intention is to even things out.”

No-one knew, this week, what happened to make Peter Harrold’s right elbow swell up and fill with a bunch fluid and not bend. The Newark Star-Ledger was monitoring the Devils’ defenceman’s condition, which might have been triggered in Columbus back in October.

“One of those freak things. It just kind of blew up on me,” said Harrold. “I had very limited movement and a bunch of fluid and swelling.”

GM Lou Lamoriello wondered whether Harrold had used his elbow too much. “It just popped up,” he said. “I don’t know if it was from over-use. Really all you can do is speculate. The doctors aren’t certain. It wasn’t a bone spur or chip. It’s a mystery at this point. Once the swelling is down and the fluid is gone, we were good to go.”

“I feel good,” said Harrold. “I’m certainly close,” said Harrold.

In Chicago, where Winnipeg lost 4-1 to the Blackhawks, Brandon Bollig checked the Jets’ Adam Pardy, which caused a piece of glass to fall on fans sitting in some corner seats at the United Center. Everybody was okay, other than Pardy: a guy yanked off his helmet and put it on. Pardy told The Winnipeg Free Press:

“I was just going back for the puck there. Two big, solid boys coming together there, I guess. And the glass came out. One of those situations where you don’t want to see anybody get hurt. Then I got a beer dumped all over my head. All over the side of my face and on the side of my jersey. I don’t know if you can smell it but the bench could definitely smell a little booze there for the last six minutes.”

“It’s no secret we have passionate fans,” Bollig said.

The Chicago Blackhawks apologized, to the Jets and to the NHL at large. “We have spoken to those involved,” read the team’s Thursday statement. “The individuals were immediately ejected from the arena to preserve the safety of everyone in attendance, including other fans, players and officials.

Kevin Mize was the guy who grabbed the helmet. The Chicago Tribune figured that out, and posted his CV online. That’s how we know not only that Mize is the Dealer Principal and President of O’Hare Honda and O’Hare Hyundai, located in Des Plaines, Illinois, but what he does in his spare time: golfs, fly-fishes, skis, kayaks and devotes his time to philanthropic activities.

From Tampa Bay came news that Martin St. Louis has long since forgiven his GM, Steve Yzerman, for cutting him from the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. Reported Mike Brophy at CBC.ca:

“I’m not upset, but there was nothing Steve could have said to me to make me feel better about not being on that team. I told him I’ll always be disappointed no matter what he tells me, but they are put in a position to make tough decisions and he had to make the decisions he had to make. Obviously he made the right ones because they won the gold medal.”

In The Hockey News, Adam Proteau wagged a warning finger at Montreal coach Michel Therrien, who’s been benching Norris Trophy-winning defenceman P.K. Subban, and not using him to kill penalties.

If the Canadiens aren’t too careful, they’ll finger-poke him in the chest all the way into a corner, then wonder why he becomes interested in the colour of grass on other sides of the fence.

A Stockholm newspaper, Aftonbladet, profiled Vancouver coach John Tortorella this week and lest anyone get the wrong impression from the headline —

Quote Machine, Lunatic Leader — and Champion

— it’s in fact a pretty admiring piece. I’m relying on the help here of Google’s resident translator here, so there’s room for interpretation — when it comes, for instance, to the word lunatic. Galning is the original, which could also be rendered as maniac, just for the record. Vildhjärna is another word that comes up, later, which Google gives as wild brain but could just as well be rattlebrain, I find, or scapegrace.

(Photo: @BarackObama)