Putting On A Show: For the first time since March 7, 2020, there will be fans on hand in Boston’s TD Garden tonight, some 2,300 of them, as the Bruins take on the New York Islanders. Herewith, some views from the beforetimes, collected on February 12, 2020, when I saw the Bruins beat the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-1 on the strength of a David Pastrnak hattrick.
A month into the NHL’s second COVID-modified season: how’s that going? As of last night, 175 games of 210 scheduled games had been played, 35 postponed. Around the league, 108 players on 26 teams have spent time on the COVID protocol list, not all of whom have tested positive, with 52 players from 10 teams now cloistered, along with a couple of linesmen. Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Louis are the teams that have, so far, avoided listing any players.
Time to be erring on the side of shutting it all down? Not according to the NHL. At least, there’s been no public suggestion of any hiatus in the interest of all-around health and safety. Must the show go on? Maybe not, but it will.
And maybe, soon, with more fans. The Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Dallas Stars have already been skating in front of diminished crowds, and now there’s word that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to be getting the public-health approval that will allow them to welcome a limited number of fans into their respective buildings, maybe in March.
All of which would seem to suggest that the time is right for a detour back through hockey history to a time when fans not only filled the seats of NHL arenas, but fulfilled their right to hurl whatever they might have in hand, or pocket, or on foot, onto the ice.
The throwing of stuff by fans at hockey games is, of course, as much of the history of the sport as the ice and/or referees that stuff has so often targeted. In a book I wrote about the culture of hockey (and vice-versa), I devoted six pages to the instinct fans have to throw stuff at hockey games; the variety of stuff thrown; and the dangers inherent in that stuff being on the ice — I could easily have filled a chapter of 20 pages.
Welcome, then, to a weekend’s series of posts focussing on Chicago’s old Stadium in the 1930s and ’40s.
Chicago is by no means the only NHL city with a history of dangerous debris: the annals of stuff flung include them all, every franchise, every rink. Black Hawks’ fans were notorious, especially those occupying the high gallery seats at the Madhouse on Madison, for inundating the ice in outrage, protest, joy, or … just because they could. The 1944 Stanley Cup Finals stand out in this regard — more about that here — but there were plenty of instances before that of games delayed by coins and shoes and playing cards raining down from on high, paper airplanes, novels, fruit, empty bottles.
The Blackhawks did their best to curtail the bombarding over the years, deploying ushers and policeman, issuing threats and pleas. The entreaty reproduced here, above, dates to January of 1935, when Chicago was defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in the spring of ’34.
The Associated Press reported on this flyer, which was distributed to fans that winter. “So bold have the customers at the Chicago Stadium been getting that it was decided to appeal to their better natures in an effort to halt the aerial onslaughts.”
Fans had been growing bolder, the AP noted, since earlier in the season when a bottle-tosser, arrested by police, had been released at the request of Stadium authorities.
“Officials of the club were inclined to believe their printed appeal was conducive to better behaviour,” the AP noted, “because there was a noticeable depreciation in the amount of debris scattered on the ice the first night it was tried.”
The Maple Leafs meet the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, which is as good a prompt as any to cast back to a Sunday night in 1938, March 6, to revisit another meeting of the two old rivals.
The NHL was an eight-team affair then. That year, like this one, there was a Canadian division, though for balance it included the New York Americans as well as the Leafs, Canadiens, and Montreal Maroons. Toronto was top of the section at that late-season juncture, with Montreal in second. Saturday night the Leafs beat the Maroons 2-0 at the Forum, with Turk Broda getting the shutout. The goals came from rookie winger George Parsons and centre Syl Apps.
Sunday night the Leafs and Canadiens played to the biggest crowd to gather that season at the Forum: “11,000 fans banked solidly up the Forum’s sloping sides,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil reported, and as seen in the photographs here.
McNeil wasn’t so impressed by the Canadiens. To his eye, they came up with “one of their shoddiest and most impotent displays of the campaign.” The Leafs licked them 6-3, in the end; “to make matters worse they didn’t even score a goal until the game had been hopelessly lost, 6-0.”
The Leafs were led by winger Gordie Drillon, who scored a pair of goals, and would end up as the NHL’s top scorer by season’s end. App, who finished second in league scoring, had a goal on the night, along with Bob Davidson, Busher Jackson, and Buzz Boll. Scoring for Montreal were Toe Blake, Pit Lepine, and Don Wilson. Wilf Cude was in the Canadiens’ net.
Other highlights of the night:
Born in Transcona, on Winnipeg’s east side, on a Thursday of this date in 1924, Cal Gardner made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers before a trade took him to Toronto in 1948. He won two Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs. He was briefly a Black Hawk and then finished his 12-year career in the NHL with four seasons with the Bruins. The scene here dates to his final year, 1957, when Boston visited Madison Square Garden and the Rangers beat them 5-2. Dean Prentice scored the winning goal for New York; Gump Worsley (Rangers) and Don Simmons (Bruins) were the goaltenders.
There was no penalty box as such at the old Garden in those years, which meant that if you transgressed and went to wait out your sentence, you sat just west of the Rangers’ bench on the 49thStreet (south) side of the rink, amid paying customers. Gardner served two time-outs that night, in the first period (for slashing) and in the third (hooking), visiting, unavoidably, with Sally Lark on both occasions.
“Now that some of the Rangers’ games are being televised nationally, she is becoming to many more who assume that she is the wife of someone connected with the team.” That’s from a short profile Sports Illustrated ran in ’57. No, not so, no such connection: 28-year-old Lark was an interior decorator from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, just a big Ranger fan with a season’s ticket that kept her front and centre. “Sin Bin Sally,” the papers sometimes called her. She’d attended her first game in 1942, and in the 15 years since, she’d only missed about ten home games.
“It’s better not to talk to them at first,” Lark said of the players from visiting teams who ended up in her precinct. “They’re not in a very good humour. But if a player gets a major penalty he usually has time to cool off before he leaves the box. Then, maybe, we speak.”
The night of Gardner’s visit was a busy one, despite being brawl-free: Rangers Lou Fontinato, Harry Howell, Prentice, Red Sullivan, Andy Bathgate, and Bill Gadsby all dropped by the penalty bench at one time or another, along with Boston’s Fleming MacKell, Don McKenney, Fern Flaman, Johnny Peirson, and Allan Stanley.
Lark had tickets for two more seats on her right, for friends; on her left sat the Garden timekeeper. In all her years at the Garden, she was injured only once, before the Garden installed glass around the boards in 1946, when she was hit by a puck in the ear. “Just a few drops of blood,” she said. “Even now,” SI advised, “if she wears a hat, she is likely to have it knocked into her lap by some player thrashing about her on the penalty bench.” Lark said she didn’t mind: life by the ice was “exciting but safe.”
August 4 was a Thursday in 1921, and the weather was fine: the morning edition of Montreal’s La Patrie promised that, despite some rain in Alberta and Saskatchewan, “il fait généralement beau et modérément chaud par tout le Dominion.”
The national news that summer’s day was of forest fires on the rampage near Dawson City in the Yukon, and also around Springhill Mines, Nova Scotia. From Toronto’s Don Jail came word of the hanging, on Wednesday, of two men, named Hotrum and McFadden, who’d been convicted of shooting a drugstore-owner, name of Sabine, they’d been robbing. “It was stated,” the Gazette reported, “that Hotrum smiled as he left the death cell.”
Closer to home, on the Montreal waterfront, vessels tied up included the Minnedosa, the Cornishman, and the Canadian Seigneur; the shipping news disclosed that others, includingthe Mina Brea, the Bosworth, and the Canadian Commander, were headed into harbour.
An open-air dance was on the cards that week, in the Summer Garden, the Jardin d’Été, at the corner of Sherbrooke and Saint-Laurent. At the pictures, the New Grand was featuring David Powell in Appearances, while the Belmont had Marie Doro starring in Midnight Gambols.
In foreign news, the world was reeling from the shock of the death in Naples on August 2 of Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, at just 48. Others headlines brought tidings from Dublin, where Éamon de Valera was taking steps to declare himself President of the Republic.
In London, the seventh anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was noted but — for the first time since 1918 — not observed with any ceremony.
From Liverpool came news that Lord Byng of Vimy and Lady Byng were aboard the Empress of France, setting sail for Canada so that he could take up his duties as the new governor-general. The couple, along with their beloved spaniel, Pax, was expected to arrive in Quebec on August 11, where Prime Minister Arthur Meighen would greet them before the couple journeyed on to Ottawa the following day.
Lord Byng, of course, had commanded the Canadian Corps through the Vimy campaign of 1917. “A very simple living man, modest and retiring,” the press was reporting that week. “He has also a passion for tree-felling.”
As for Lady Byng, she had a new novel due out in the fall, Barriers, that McClelland & Stewart would be publishing. The winter ahead would also make her a hockey fan. Introduced to the defending Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators in December, she was soon taking a regular seat in the vice-regal box at Dey’s Arena, developing a devotion to the team, even as she came to wish that the game itself might conduct itself in a more gentlemanly way. With that in mind, before her husband’s tenure came to an end in 1926, she’d donate the trophy that bears her name.
Not noted in any Montreal newspaper columns that eventful week in 1921: the birth of a baby in Montreal’s east end on this day, all those 99 years ago, a first son for a young carpenter named Onésime Richard and his wife, Alice.
Joseph Henri Maurice was what they’d call their boy, known as Maurice, mostly, in his earliest years. Later, of course, when the world saw him on skates, and the intensity with he roared towards the goal with the puck on his stick, he was simply the Rocket.
The hockey players won’t be arriving until Sunday, but in Toronto yesterday the downtown lockdown that is the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs was underway as the NHL prepares to quarantine itself away to try to get to the end of its 2019-20 season. By this morning, the Leafs’ own Scotiabank Arena (above) was fully fortified behind the fencing that will keep out the (possibly contagious?) public + any media who don’t work for the league while the hockey players attempt to do their thing until its done. Also sealed-off is the nearby Fairmont Royal York (below), one of two Toronto hotels that will be housing hockeyists and only hockeyists for the next two months. Yes, that’s right: as Kevin McGran explained this week in The Toronto Star, the NHL is restricting all but its own NHL.com writers when it comes to covering these strange, sequestered playoffs.
In this, the year of our dread and disruption, 24 teams will gather, 12 in Toronto, 12 in Edmonton, as the league follows its Return To Play Plan that will see teams (probably) hit the ice on Tuesday for a quick round of exhibition games before (here’s hoping) they get into the competitive sort in another week’s time, on Saturday, August 1.
What’s hub life going to be like for those on the inside? The NHL got into that, a little bit, yesterday, here, which is how we know that Toronto’s hub will be guarded by “97 security guards and health ambassadors” (Edmonton gets 125), and that the league has secured “more than 1,000 cases of Gatorade, 1,000 practice pucks, and 12,000 shower towels” in each city to last through the early qualifying games.
And for those of us on the outs, peering in? The man in charge of overseeing what fans will see and hear on TV is Steve Mayer, the NHL’s senior executive VP and chief content officer. “We hope that we do something that is memorable, sticks out, something that our fans will really enjoy,” is what he told NHL.com.
There won’t be, he says, virtual fans or cardboard cut-outs, or teddy bears in the stands. Broadcasters NBC and Sportsnet will be employing twice as many cameras as usual. For atmosphere, the NHL plans to pipe in “goal songs, goal horns, in-arena music compilations and motivational videos from each of the 24 teams participating.”
And if, in the coming weeks, you get the feeling you’ve crossed over from the real world into the virtual confines of NHL ’94? Know, too, that the league is partnering with EA Sports to fake the ruckus you’d be making if you were in the Scotiabank in person — or, as they phrase it, “to use [EA’s] library of in-game sounds to mimic some crowd noise.”
What to make of the events of the last week? I can’t tell you that; I don’t know. We’re in trying times, and they’re frightening. Hold fast to the ones you love. That I can recommend. And: wash your hands. As for hockey, I’ll carry on telling its stories. Today’s recalls the week 24 years ago that the Montreal Canadiens took leave of the rink on Cabot Square that they’d called home for 72 years. It was on Monday dated March 11 that the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1. The late great Roger Doucet returned (via tape) to sing O Canada that night. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand, including 20 Hall-of-Famers, and the stirring pre-game ceremonies included a ten-minute ovation for Rocket Richard. I watched all this from high up in the rafters, where I was seated in the overflow press section, next to the man from The Jerusalem Post. He was working the game whereas I was just watching, and marvelling: the assignment for which I’d journeyed from Toronto was the next night, Tuesday. I’d convinced the features editor I worked with at The Financial Post that what he really needed, whether he knew it or not, were 1,800 words reporting on the public auction whereby the Canadiens sold off 145 Forum artifacts, some more historic than others. And so, having witnessed Monday’s game, I was back at the rink the following night to get my story. Four days later, as the Canadiens prepared to host the New York Rangers for the first game in their brand-new rink (then named for Molson’s, now known as the Bell Centre), my feature ran on page 22 of the weekend Post, up at the front of the FP Review section, under the headline “Bidding Farewell To The Forum.” It went like this:
MONTREAL — Bidder No. 99 was a man, fortyish, with a widened middle, glasses, and a diminished preserve of dark hair, strategically combed. For four hours on Tuesday night, while the Montreal Canadiens said so long to their beloved Forum by selling it off piece by selected piece at public auction, No. 99 sat in the front row, spending his money in amounts divisible by a thousand.
No. 99 turned out to be a computer consultant by the name of Marc Cooper, who’d come for his piece of the Forum from Manalapan, New Jersey. “I’m proud to be a Canadiens fan,” he said, like a politician speaking to voters whose backing he already had. “There’s only one team in sports like this.”
On the auction floor, Cooper sat within subtle-nodding distance of the auctioneer, Serge Belec, who ran the show at a frantic pace in two languages. Cooper didn’t look like a particularly happy man, but he seemed determined, and not uneasy with expenditure. A little later, it became clear just much how in earnest he was. If Guy Lafleur had wandered into, it’s entirely possible that Cooper would have stepped up with an offer to buy the legendary right winger to ornament his rec room. As it was, absent Lafleur, Tuesday’s was a C$75,000 night for Cooper. His wife, he said, was behind him all the way on this.
In all, about 1,000 people paid $35 to secure their bidding number and with it the chance to shell out for a souvenir of the most famous hockey there is. (Another 1,500 or so paid $5 each to watch these proceedings.) Mostly they were men; mostly they stayed out of the bidding once they learned what kind of money it was going to take to wrest a piece of history from the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine West.
The night before, a crowd of 17,959 had watched the Canadiens play the final game of their 72-year tenancy at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1 in the company of some of the greatest Canadiens ever to have worn the bleu, the blanc, the rouge. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand on Monday night, 20 Hall-of-Famers among them, including Maurice and Henri Richard, Butch Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Frank Mahovlich, Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.
Tuesday night, No. 99 moved his buying power to the forefront early and kept on reiterating it. For $31,000 he bought Lot 22, the banner that had previously hung high in the Forum rafters to commemorate the first Stanley Cup the team won in the NHL era in 1923-24. Another $20,000 got him the net the Canadiens had defended during the first period the night before. For a further $5,000, Cooper scored a sturdy post festooned with four goal-lights that had reached the end of their Forum career. He spent $3,400 on a pair of tall grey metal dressing-room lockers wherein Canadiens Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse had until very recently parked their shoes and hang their trousers while they were out pursuing pucks.
Alongside Cooper, there were a couple of other big spenders. A bar owner from Laval, Quebec, snapped up the most recent Stanley Cup banner, from 1992-93, for $32,000. Somebody else spent $900 on one of the Forum’s newly decommissioned hotdog grills. For $4.70 a go, most everybody else bought a Molson Export and drank it slowly.
What was wrong with the venerable old Forum, which hosted 29 Stanley Cup finals over the years, 12 of which saw the Canadiens triumph, along with countless lesser glories, that the its end came nigh? After seven decades, it was still in good working order. Fatally, the Forum is an old rink in a new age that’s shaped largely along hard, profit-minded bottom lines. That’s why the Canadiens are moving not quite two kilometres to the east where a glimmering new rink, named Centre Molson for the owners of the team, awaits. Roomier than the Forum by 5,000 seats, it’s also more lucrative by a factor of several dozen additional corporate suites.
There’s no word yet on what’s become of the Forum now that the Canadiens are moving on. Optimists favour talk of a park that would preserve the ice-surface out-of-doors. Whatever happens, the building isn’t likely to survive. In recent weeks, some fans have made clear their willingness to help with the demolition: one handy devotee wrestled one of the Forum’s back-stiffening seats from its Section 111 moorings and carried it off — i.e. stole it — during a February 12 game.
The legal way to secure of the Forum’s 16,000-odd seats was to order one: starting in January, for prices ranging from $125 to $290 per seat (plus shipping), most of them went on sale, with delivery to follow in May. The rest of the Forum’s furniture — including oddments like the hot-dog grill and premium items like the seat from which then-NHL president Clarence Campbell watched the Richard Riot start to stir and explode in March of 1955 — was reserved for this week’s event.
Meanwhile, the official unmaking of the Forum by auction was sanctioned by Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey, with all proceeds to be divided between the United Way in Montreal and the association representing former Canadiens players.
In Montreal, some of the faithful bewailed the auction as soon as it was announced: wasn’t it bad enough crass commercialization had doomed the building itself without the sale of sacramental artifacts as the Stanley Cup banners that announced from the Forum’s rafters 24 Canadiens’ triumphs? Didn’t the tangibles of tradition mean anything? “We’d like to think those banners are more or less public property,” grumbled Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd, “given the amount of money and emotion Montrealers have invested in every one.”
“Now, thanks to Molson, any Westmount Trust Fund Baby can bid on the original 1944 Stanley Cup pennant.”
Sacred the banners may be, but Todd didn’t quite have it right: the ones lowered from on high to be auctioned date only to 1992, so whatever their sentimental value, there was nothing antique to them. In fact, the two-metre long pennants, none of which would sell fore less than $8,000 (the one from ’44 went for $10K), were the stuff of shower curtains: they were made, every one, from serviceable, ordinary plastic.
It’s customary before auctions for the public to be offered estimates on what an object will sell for. In anticipation of the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in April in New York, for instance, Sotheby’s has issued a helpful shopping list advising prospective shoppers of the least they can expect to pay on a particular item: US$800 for a quiver of JFK’s golf clubs, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent for somewhere within shouting distance of $US125,000.
The catalogue for what the Canadiens called “The Forum’s Super Auction” offered no such guidelines, either because organizers wanted the market to establish its own boundaries on the night or because they had no standards against which to value most of what was on offer. There are experts to gauge the relative worth of a painting; there are even, apparently, some who can fix a price tag on a presidential putter. But how do you account for the value that true-heart fans will attach to otherwise everyday objects from a holy temple? What isa door to a players’ bench actually worth to the faithful? What price the puck that last Monday Canadiens’ winger Andrei Kovalenko scored the last-ever goal at the Forum?
Pre-auction intelligence had it that prices were going to run high. That’s what Marc Cooper was hearing, anyway. He came prepared to spend $100,000, most of which, he suspected, would go towards a single plastic Stanley-Cup banner. Word had it, too, that he’d be in competition with several prominent former Canadiens. Ex-coach Pat Burns was said to be interested in the players’ bench behind which he used to patrol. Meanwhile, the bench from and door to a penalty box were reported to be coveted by former Habs’ hard-heads Chris Nilan and John Ferguson. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy left Montreal left Montreal in a hurry and a snit this past December, but he was said to be in the market for a piece of his Montreal past: the banner from the Canadiens’ — and his own — last Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. He was said to be dispatching a representative to the auction to do his bidding.
As it turned out, the only former Hab to successfully pay it backwards was Hall-of-Fame winger Dickie Moore, who spent $650 on a small rink clock. On each of the 144 lots available on the night, auctioneer Serge Belec kept the pace of Doug Harvey on a powerplay rush, leaving no room for the hesitant of heart or wallet. “Give me four thousand,” he proclaimed at one point via his headset microphone, “or get outta town.”
In quick succession as the selling got going as the hour struck seven, Belec peddled a vintage ice with a wide red blade ($800), a turnstile ($1,800), a stick and a sweater, both autographed by Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault ($5,100), a Hab-branded lectern from the Forum press room ($8,000).
Pat Burns didn’t get his bench: after a short back-and-forth among dogged bidders, Montreal lawyer Louise Houle’s $6,000 won out. “I’ve got a little sports room in my basement,” she said afterwards. “It’s going straight in there. So far I’ve got Expos stuff. If I’m going to start in with hockey, I might as well start right.” She would be sitting on it, she said, along with “anyone who asks very politely.”
The door from the Canadiens’ dressing room fetched $11,500, Clarence Campbell’s red seat, $12,000.
Robert Vachon, a pharmacist from Valleyfield, Quebec, paid out a total of $25,000 for a clock and a banner he planned to raise in a bowling alley he was opening. Larry Harnish, a fisherman who’d made the journey from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, came away having shelled out $2,000 for defenceman Lyle Odelein’s stick and sweater. He was going to display them, he said, on his living-room wall.
By night’s end, when Canadiens president Ronald Corey was proudly declaring a total take of $726,500, Marc Cooper figured that about ten percent of that was him. His Stanley Cup banner would be hanging — well, he wasn’t quite yet sure where it was going, he’d have to consult with his wife. The net with the glossy red goalposts? That would probably be headed for the basement back in New Jersey. His two sons, aged four and eight, were getting the lockers: they’d been asking for lockers.
Spending his $75,000 had left Cooper elated. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just dreamed of coming to the Forum. Now to have so much of this history in my house is just great.”
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.