game faces: anthony jenkins’ rink renditions

Habtop: Anthony Jenkins’ portrait of Rocket Richard adorns a vintage Eagle table-top hockey game.

“I’m an artist, a hockey fan, and a (fading) hockey player.” That’s how Anthony Jenkins describes himself these days. If you press him a bit on the artistry, he might add that, for all the painting that he does up near Orangeville, Ontario, where he lives, he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a painter. “I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints,” he told me recently.

If his style seems familiar, it might be that you’re a regular Globe and Mail reader. For 39 years, Jenkins  was on staff at the Toronto newspaper as an award-winning editorial cartoonist, illustrator, and sometime writer.

The scope and charm of his post-Globe oeuvre is on display at his website, over this way. For hockey fans, that’s also the best place to get to know and marvel at Jenkins’ collection of portraits of NHL Hall-of-Famers for which he uses working table hockey games for a canvas.  

“My ‘Game Face’ series of paintings are intended as a homage to the idols of my youth,” he says of the ongoing anthology that he started in about 15 years ago. Subjects to date have included Guy Lafleur and Gump Worsley, Tim Horton, Wendel Clark, and Auston Matthews. His preferred canvas might be the old Eagle table-hockey game from the 1960s, but he also frequently works with Stiga games, which are Swedish-made. As far as he can determine, Stiga is the only manufacturer still producing table-hockey rinks on any scale.

Several of Jenkins’ hockey portraits have featured in gallery shows, including in 2019 at a hockey-minded exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, that also included etchings by Peter Doig, the photographs of Diana Thorneycroft, and paintings by former Hockey in Night Canada broadcaster Brian McFarlane.

Some of those same works of Jenkins’ are available for sale (see, again, his website); he’s also glad, he says, to take on commissions, whether the subject excelled on NHL ice or is someone you know (aor are) who laces up to chase late-night beer-league pucks.

Earlier this year, Anthony Jenkins was good enough to collaborate on a Puckstruck Q+A. Our conversation, edited and condensed, is reflected in these answers to my questions.

On his background, in hockey and art:

I grew up in Toronto, Scarborough, played hockey as a young boy. I wasn’t particularly good. My first team was Baby Bunny Nuts — sounds pretty ferocious, doesn’t it? They were a firm that had hot-nut machines in grocery stores … so I played for Baby Bunny Nuts for a year.

I always wanted to be an artist and ended up being a cartoonist and later on, an artist. I dropped away from playing hockey and picked it up again as an adult. I’ve played pick-up hockey for years since.

Leafly: Jenkins’ own Auston Matthews.

On matching hockey portraits with hockey games:

The hockey game thing — I guess a friend of mine was painting on various kinds of toys and games, and one of them was a little tiny, almost palm-of-your-hand-sized, hockey game.

And so it dawned on me — I was familiar with the big hockey games, because I played them as avidly as a boy, and even in university. I thought, if you stand this upright, it’s a natural frame — I’m going to paint something on there.

I’m a face guy — I love painting faces — so I thought I’ll paint a hockey player on there. And then I found out: not so easy. Because your canvas has got slots and spikes sticking out of it, with mobile players. So it was more of a challenge to get an interesting pose that the slots didn’t interfere with. And that’s where the most work is, laying that out, designing how you’re going to paint it. Then once you do that, on goes the portrait.

I’d say I’ve done 30, at least. Mostly I just do them and then try and show them and sell them. Sometimes people call me and I’ll do commissions of their favourite guy: can you do a Gump Worsley? Absolutely. They’re a quirky thing, because, you know, most people wouldn’t put him on the living-room wall … it’s more of a man-cave thing. Some people can take them or leave them, but the people who like them, like them a lot. I like them a lot.

On materials and methods:

As far as I’m aware, Stiga is the only company still making table hockey games. I grew up in the as a kid in the ’60s, so I knew that the old Eagle games with the flat metal players. I’ve still got a few of them up on my bookcase, just as a memory. You can still get them on eBay, but they’re really hard to find, and they’re expensive.

The Gretzky games are from the ’80s, so the next generation, and they’re a little bit easier to find. I like them in that they’re big and solid, and they’re very white, so they’re the easiest for me to paint on. The Rocket one I painted, that’s the kind of game I had as a kid. I’ve done a couple of those, and they’re really quite nice.

Hull Yes: The Golden Brett in his St. Louis heyday.

On process:

What I do is I tape the rods up, inside, using hockey tape, so they can’t slip out. Otherwise a three-foot game becomes a six-foot game.

So they’re all taped in place. And the players come off and then I just start painting over top. I’ll paint out the area I need in white — I’m getting rid of lines and circles — and then I do a line drawing in grease pencil, because you’re drawing on plastic and a grease pencil works best. And then I paint over top of that. And then one thing I’m proud of doing is, I don’t just want to paint the player on the game, I want to integrate him, so I paint a lot of the lines and circles and ice insignia back into the image, so it looks like he’s kind of emerging from the game.

I paint in acrylic, which dries more quickly. It’s quite bright, too. And the idea is, what I trying to do, I’m not trying to reproduce a photograph. So the skin colour isn’t pink, and (say) the Leafs’ blue jersey is not just blue, I’ll get in some turquoise and some pink, and other shades. So, just visually, it’s interesting as well. I mean, it is a painting. It’s more than hockey memorabilia: it’s art.

Putting actual paint on the surface, it takes maybe 12 or 15 hours. Then you’ve got to factor in, I’ve got to go online and find the game, get it, then an hour or two (or more) just kind of plotting the layout, which is the hardest part.

It’s not necessarily the most creative part, but it’s the most important part. I mean, when I first started doing it, I thought, this is great. Then I’d paint a player onto the game and there’d be one of the game-rods sticking out of his eyeball, so I’ve just wasted 15 hours. I learned: planning is key. 

Flower Arrangement: Guy Lafleur in bloom.

On Gump and JC:

The commissions have largely been of Toronto Maple Leafs. At first, I did strictly Hall of Famers I revered as a boy, Howe, Rocket, people like that, Tim Horton. And then later on, when the commissions came in, they were often people who’d end up in the Hall, like Yzerman. And then sometimes the oddball, like Gump. He was a character beyond hockey, of course. 

I have one of Christ in a Leafs’ jersey. I forget what prompted that one, but it’s called “Jesus, we lost again?”

It was polarizing. I had one show, in Etobicoke, I had two or three paintings there, including the Jesus one. And very quickly, the gallery curator said, We’ve got to take it down, we’ve got some complaints. I asked why, and it was, well, it’s blasphemous, mocking Christ. Well, no, I wasn’t. But it came down.

And then within a year, I was showing the same painting in Collingwood. They had a  contest and I was up there and it turns out I won it. The judges said that they liked the physical application of paint, but they also liked the idea and the sheer bravery. So they got it. It’s a satire, or a sympathy, with suffering Leaf fans, not at all mocking anything.

Defining himself:

There are painters … I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints. Painters, they start off with a pink blob, and then they refine the details, refine the details, until all of a sudden it looks like me or you. I do a drawing and then kind of paint it out and paint down until it doesn’t look like a drawing, it looks like a painting. So I’m kind of doing it in reverse. It works for me. 

Selfie: Portrait of the artist, by same.

jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)

trademarked

Deal Him Out: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading