the nhl’s first (forgotten) all-star game: cleveland’s seen better

So the NHL’s first season came to its natural end as March shifted over to April in 1918. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup, and whatever muted celebrations the team and its city had organized to celebrate the Blueshirts’ five-game victory over Vancouver’s Millionaires, they were over now. Staff at Toronto Arena Gardens on Mutual Street began the new month by breaking up the ice. The hockey players were headed for home for the summer.

Until, that is, word of an arrangement for Toronto to play a team of all stars started to spread. The plan seems to have been a sudden one, and I can’t say to what extent the NHL itself was involved in the enterprise, but it is true that before it got a chance to start, the NHL off-season was delayed in 1918, as the league prepared to play its first (and now almost entirely forgotten) all-star game … in Cleveland, Ohio.

I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the whole venture originated with an invitation from the Lake Erie shore. With a population nearing 800,000, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States. (Montreal, in those years, had a population of about 600,000, while Toronto counted 500,000.) A quick glance back into the city’s hockey history suggests that the game was played in various loose forms there before Canadians got around to organizing it in the 1890s. The Elysium Arena (capacity: 2,000) went up in 1907. Amateur hockey thrived in the years that followed. In 1915, efforts to introduce the professional game to the city led to the Ontario Hockey Association instituting a ban on its teams having anything to do with Cleveland rivals.

In 1918, the Elysium hadn’t seen competitive games in two years. I don’t know the whys of that, just that a team was resurrected that wartime winter, I believe under the auspices of the Cleveland Athletic Club. As if to make up for lost time, they embarked on a frantic exhibition schedule, with games against amateur teams from Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Like Frank and Lester Patrick’s PCHA, Cleveland played seven-man hockey. The roster that year was a mostly Ontario-born crew, featuring the unsung talents of Percy Killaly (the playing coach, from Cannington), Elmer Irving (the captain, from Toronto), Mike Trimble (Bracebridge), Joe Debernardi (Port Arthur), Vern Turner (Stayner), and Harry Poland (Stratford). Rover Jimmy Cree was Mohawk, from the Akwesasne on the St. Lawrence. None of them ever played in the NHL.

In March, as the Torontos bypassed the Montreal Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Cleveland hosted Canada’s national senior amateur Allan Cup champions, the Kitchener Greenshirts, in a two-game exhibition series at the Elysium.

With future NHL all-star and master-of-the-shutout George Hainsworth in goal, the Greenshirts had reason to be confident coming in. They may have been overly so, The Globe admitted in their report on the opening encounter. “Before the game was five minutes old the Canadians found that they were up against a real seven, and that nothing but real hockey could win out.” Cleveland prevailed 5-3 that night and the next one as well, this time bettering the Greenshirts by a score of 5-2. The Globe’s correspondent was impressed: “Cleveland outplayed the Canadian champions in all departments. They showed more stamina and finished fresh and strong … Cleveland played wonderful hockey.”

Next up, as the Stanley Cup final was wrapping up in Toronto, Cleveland’s septet took on a collective of all stars representing Ontario senior amateur teams. The Globe supposed that this team represented “the greatest galaxy of individual hockey stars that has ever invaded the United States,” and that may have been true — up until the following week. This galactic group included players drawn from the Greenshirts as well as from Toronto’s Dentals, Crescents, and St. Patricks. It featured several future NHLers in Rod Smylie, Bert McCaffrey, and goaltender Doc Stewart.

Like many of his Dental teammates, Stewart was a dentist; later, he’d turn from teeth to guarding the Boston Bruins’ net. In Cleveland, he was said to be the star of the opening game, even though the Clevelanders kept their winning streak alive with a 2-1 win.

They followed that up with a 4-2 win in a second game, “outplaying the Canadians in every department,” as The Globe’s man saw it. It didn’t matter how many men were on the ice, either: Cleveland dominated early on when each team iced seven players, and they did so later, too, when an injury to one of the all-star Canadians reduced the teams to six aside.

Having staked a claim as being the best amateur team on the U.S. east coast, the Cleveland club was eager to prove its prowess on a national scale. There was talk of a meeting with the a western champion, the Ames Shipyard team from Seattle, but that doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the talking.

It sounds like Cleveland indomitable seven would have been game to take on the NHL Torontos, and maybe there was an attempt to arrange that, I don’t know. The way it worked out, the Stanley Cup champions agreed to travel south to play an assemblage of their professional peers, and that seems to have put an end to Cleveland’s season. At least one of the players had other business to attend to: captain Elmer Irving was headed home to Canada to enlist in the Army.

In Toronto, the first mention of the series appeared on the Tuesday following Toronto’s Saturday-night Stanley Cup win. Three games were planned, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Toronto had some line-up issues, starting with the fact that defenceman Harry Mummery had already upped and left town for Manitoba. Star centre Reg Noble would be ruled out en route: Canadian police turned him back at the border due to his military conscription status.

Hap Holmes, soon after he joined Toronto midway through the 1917-18 NHL season.

I don’t know how the All Stars were selected, but I suspect the process was as much about who was available as anything else. As originally announced, the team collected a pair of Vancouver Millionaires in Hughie Lehman and Ran McDonald along with Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators, and two players who’d played for Toronto late in the season though not in the Stanley Cup final, Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford. More names would be forthcoming, and duly were: by midweek, Newsy Lalonde of the Montreal Canadiens had joined the tour, along with Speed Moynes of the Millionaires; veteran Jack Marks, who’d opened the NHL season with the Montreal Wanderers before taking a turn with Toronto; and Jack McDonald, a Wanderer who’d migrated to Canadiens.

None of the participants was going to get rich on this junket. “The guarantee is just about sufficient to pay the expenses of the players,” The Winnipeg Tribune reported, “and leave a little to buy ice cream cones.”

Thursday’s game at the Elysium saw the NHL All Stars beat the Stanley Cup champions 5-4 over the course of two 20-minute halves. The Globe’s unidentified correspondent on the scene complained about the lack of team play. “It was a case after one long rush after another,” he felt. The teams “utterly failed to display class.”

Cleveland was not impressed: the hockey the pros brought with them “was materially different from the tests that have been played here by the great amateur sevens.” Their display was redeemed somewhat by the goaltenders, Holmes and Lehman, both of whom played brilliantly — “in fact, their work was the outstanding feature.” Frank Nighbor was a treat to witness, too: his stickhandling “was probably the best ever seen here.”

Toronto got its goals from Alf Skinner and Harrys Cameron and Meeking (he notched two). Newsy Lalonde scored a pair for the All Stars, who also got goals from Marks, McDonald and Moynes.

Friday’s game saw Toronto ice Holmes in goal, with Cameron and Ken Randall playing defence, and Adams centering Meeking and Skinner.

The All Stars had Lehman between the posts, with Lalonde and Crawford on the defence. Nighbor was at centre, Marks and McDonald on the wings. Moynes was the lone substitute.

It was Holmes’ “highly sensational goaltending” that turned the tide this time: he was “an unsurpassable obstacle,” making 28 stops in Toronto’s 3-1 win. The All Stars were, all in all, the better team, for what that was worth. Rusty Crawford, “always busy,” was their star, and when the Torontos played rough, he was willing to reply in kind. Randall scored a pair of Toronto goals, and Cameron got the other. Newsy Lalonde scored for the All Stars.

The verdict from The Ottawa Journal: if fans in Cleveland were asked to choose between the hockey their own hometown Canadians had been showing them all winter and these barnstorming pros, they’d pick the amateur version “every time.”

Saturday’s final game was deemed by the Globe“by far the best contest of the series.” On the strength of Frank Nighbor’s hattrick, the All Stars roared to a 6-3 win, thereby taking the series on games (two to one) and goals, too (12 to 10).

It’s possible that the whole effort was mounted with an idea to raise funds for the war effort — earlier talk of playing the Seattle shipyard team had included plans to donate all proceeds to the Red Cross. I haven’t found any details of that, though. Nor of any tales of adventure from beyond the rink. Did the NHLers see the sights? Meet up and play any informal games with against Percy Killaly and Jimmy Cree and company? Can’t say. I can report that almost as soon as the Torontos and their All Star rivals departed Cleveland at the end of that weekend, bound for home and the off-season ahead, the series seems to have vanished from all recall.

You won’t find any mention of it in any NHL repository — none that’s accessible to the public, anyway. The Hockey Hall of Fame pays it no heed. Andrew Podnieks published a scrupulous catalogue, The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition in 2000, but it makes no mention of Cleveland in 1918. As detailed therein (and as generally acknowledged across the hockey world), hockey convened four landmark benefit games involving all-star line-ups between 1908 and 1939 (Hod Stuart, Ace Bailey, Howie Morenz, and Babe Siebert). The first proper All-Star Game came in 1947, in Toronto, with proceeds going towards the establishment of a pension fund for the players. The format there was as it was in Cleveland, with the Stanley-Cup champion Maple Leafs taking on a selection of the best of the rest.

So where do the 1918 games fit in? I haven’t asked, but I’m going to guess that the NHL might go with the line that they were unofficial — that this weekend in Cleveland was more of barnstorming situation than anything that might be recognized by the league. The league may already have studied the situation and decided that, though I doubt it: I don’t think these games are anywhere on the NHL radar.

They do deserve to be recognized for what they represent in the way of breaking new ground for the NHL. It would be six years before the league added its first American team, the Boston Bruins. How much did the experience in Cleveland in 1918 influence what happened when the time came for expansion south? In terms of all-star games, it would be another 29 years before the NHL got around to organizing the one that’s known as the first. Is it time to reset the record?

Can I say, pre-emptively, that I don’t accept any notional claim about whether they were league-sanctioned or not. The NHL wasn’t the behemoth brand that it is today, of course — in 1918, it was an entity consisting, more or less, of president and secretary Frank Calder. Whether Toronto manager Charlie Querrie sought his approval for the jaunt to Cleveland, I don’t know. The whole NHL operation had a make-it-up-as-you-along vibe to it that first tumultuous year, from the moment of its creation at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel in November of 1917 through the Stanley-Cup series with Vancouver. For me, the series in Cleveland was no more ad hoc than any of the rest of it.

Hockey continued in Cleveland, of course, after the Stanley Cup champions and their All-Star rivals left town. The city got its first professional team in 1929, and there was talk off and on after that of an NHL franchise — including in 1935, when the Montreal Canadiens used the threat of a move to Cleveland as they negotiated a new rink deal back home. Cleveland got a WHA team, the Crusaders, in the early 1970s, and then an NHL franchise soon after that, though the Barons only stayed for two seasons.

Back to 1929 for a moment. After many years of amateur powerhouses like the one that played so well in the winter of 1918, the Cleveland Indians secured a place in the minor-league Canadian Professional Hockey League. This is noteworthy, I’ll venture: the man who made it happen as owner and manager of the new enterprise, launching Cleveland into its hockey future, was none other than Hap Holmes, Toronto’s Stanley Cup goaltender from back in 1918, star of the NHL’s first, forgotten All-Star games.

Champions-In-The-Making: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.

 

hard luck, ottawa! ne’ertheless, many a devlin hat is doffed to you in defeat

Brimful: Ottawa’s powerful 1925-26 Senators cruised to a first-place finish in the NHL’s final standings. Come the playoffs, though, they couldn’t get past the team that finished second, and so it was that the Montreal Maroons who went on to play for — and win — the Stanley Cup that spring, beating the WHL Victoria Cougars in four games to claim the championship on April 6, 1926. The Senators, at least, had some fancy headgear with which to launch into the off-season, as seen in this Ottawa advertisement. Because, of course, as the good people at 1920s-Devlin’s would have us all remember, “there is no playoff in the hat world.”

my first hockey game: admiral of the fleet the earl jellicoe

The homage to the Navy will be on display throughout the historic outdoor game, from the on-field décor to the in-game ceremonies to the more than 500 U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) midshipmen in attendance. The NHL regulation rink sits atop a Navy-inspired aircraft carrier flight deck complete with model fighter jet.

• NHL Public Relations, February 28, 2018

So the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing the Washington Capitals tonight in Annapolis, Maryland, in order to celebrate … U.S. naval might?

I have no special objection to the NHL theming its latest game in the Stadium Series in this way, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. Does it seem just a little forced, though, even for the NHL? I wasn’t paying attention, I guess, as closely as I might have been. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw the smart all-white duds the Leafs will have their ratings wearing tonight, I didn’t know that they had the Royal Canadian Navy’s motto (“Ready, Aye, Ready”) stitched inside the collar let alone that the design is supposed to allude to our Naval Ensign.

By the time I registered, earlier this week, that the game is being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Russian President Vladimir Putin was out and about touting his new and invincible arsenal, including speedy underwater drones capable of carrying nuclear bombs. For just a moment there it seemed vaguely possible that if the NHL’s military parading had nothing to do with global arms races before Alex Ovechkin’s favourite strongman started missile-rattling, maybe it would now be enlisted to the effort. I waited in vain, as it turned out, to hear that tonight’s venue had been shifted to a rink frozen atop the actual flight deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford as she cruised up and down Chesapeake Bay.

To get into the maritime spirit, how about a sea shanty from hockey’s history? Well, a sail-past, at least, of the NHL’s third season, involving one of the First World War’s most prominent personalities, a true naval hero. That should serve, shouldn’t it, for something?

John Jellicoe’s our man, born in Southampton in England in 1859. Hockey was still untamed, which is to say unruled and disorganized, wandering in the wilds, when Jellicoe got his first job with the Royal Navy at the age of 13, as a midshipman, in 1872. I’m not going to paddle through the whole of his career here, though I am going to glory, for just a moment, in the names of some of the ships he sailed on in his time: HMSes Britannia and Colossus, Sans Pareil, Ramillies, Centurion, Albermarle.

He survived the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was shot in the lungs and should have died but didn’t — “defied his doctors” is a phrase attached to this episode, which you should look up, between periods, instead of bothering with Coach’s Corner.

He was a protégé of Admiral Jackie Fisher’s, and very involved in modernizing the Royal Navy, a big proponent of dreadnoughts, & etc. Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord when Jellicoe took command of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in August of 1914. In 1916, he was in command at the Battle of Jutland — that’s your second-intermission reading assignment.

He was a small man, and taciturn, and (I’ve learn from a 1915 profile) shaved “so carefully that they say his face is cleared for action.” His voice was soft and pleasant and he scarcely raised it to give an order. “Under no circumstance,” the same feature asserts, “has he ever been seen in a rage.” He was a man of so few words, apparently, that a dark joke during the First World War maintained that if the Germans were to prevail, Admiral Jellicoe would not be able to say the words “I surrender.”

The war had been over for a year when, aged 60, he and his wife, Florence, visited Canada in November of 1919. Sailed in, of course, aboard the battle-cruiser HMS New Zealand, arriving in Victoria to great fanfare. He eventually made his way east (terrestrially, by train), where he was attended with more pomp and ceremony while talking a lot about naval policy and shipbuilding, and what we here in the Dominion should and could be doing, and also gave a public lecture at Massey Hall on “Sea Power,” for which reserved seats cost 25 cents.

But — hockey. In early December, after dinner at the King Edward Hotel on King Street, the Jellicoes and their party, which included Mayor Tommy Church, headed north to Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Continue reading

duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

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)

ott not

Hella Ranger: New York defender and sometime captain Ott Heller.

Nobody likes a New York Rangers nitpicker. Then again, somebody’s going to have to stand up for Ott Heller. And so, just for the record, that’s not him they’ve got pictured in that new Hockey News spread on greatest New York Rangers.

Launched last month, the glossy 130-page special-edition magazine isn’t going to win any prizes for snappy titles. That’s not to dismiss Top 50 Players of All-Time By Franchise outright — on the contrary, this is an ambitious and absorbing undertaking by THN team and historian James Benesh, with lots to interest fans and historical pointillists alike.

Interesting to see Steve Smith (#17) ranked ahead of Connor McDavid (#19) among Edmonton’s superlatives. Fills me with unearned pride, even. How long before McDavid climbs the list to mingle with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri (#s1,2,3)?

The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their centenary celebrations last fall by hoisting Dave Keon to the top of the charts of their Top 100 players. THN begs to differ: to their thinking, Keon drops to number five, behind (at four) Ted Kennedy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, and, tip-top, Syl Apps.

Does Earl Seibert (#7) deserve a higher rung on the Chicago ladder ahead of Chris Chelios and Duncan Keith (#8 and #9)? After reading senior editor Brian Costello’s thoughts on trying to measure players from different eras against one another, I’m probably in. As Benesh says: “There will never be a right answer, never a consensus.”

Which is why, I suppose, some of us decrying the many omissions from the NHL’s centenary list might soon stop steaming from the ears. Benesh, at least, has a place for peerless Frank Nighbor ,and the great Hooley Smith. Glad to see the NHL’s defunct teams in the mix, with lists of the greats who skated for the Montreal Maroons, original Ottawa Senators, California Golden Seals, et al.

It’s with due respect that I note a few scattered errors. Deep into the Quebec Bulldogs/Hamilton Tigers top-ten, it should be Goldie Prodgers rather than the singular Prodger.

Not Ott: Bucko McDonald stands in for his Ranger teammate.

And then again back with the Rangers, on page 84. I’m not here to argue that Ott Heller (#22) deserves to be up there at the top of the rankings with fellow defencemen Ching Johnson (#9) and Brian Leetch (#2). It’s just that the photo, seen above, isn’t Heller at all: it’s Bucko McDonald.

They were teammates, it’s true, for a couple of years. After spending most of his career patrolling bluelines for Toronto and Detroit, McDonald arrived in New York in 1943, where he played out his two final NHL seasons on teams captained by Heller. That’s another pickable nit, I’m afraid: Heller only captained the Rangers for three seasons. Succeeding Art Coulter in the fall of 1942, he led the team again in ’43-’44 and ’44-’45 before giving way to Neil Colville.

the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)