things that just pop your eyes out

Bobby Orr turns 70 today, even now, as we’re talking, so what’s important, I think, is to hear what Gordie Howe had to say about him in 1971, rendered (sort of) as a poem.

Howe was 43 back then, Orr 23, and what Maclean’s thought might be a good idea was to get each of them to argue how great the other guy was. Howe had just retired from the Detroit Red Wings that spring, 25 after he’d started with them on the wing; he was still a couple of years away from making his return with the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Orr was in his sixth NHL season. He’d won Hart and Norris trophies earlier that year while racking up the best offensive numbers of his wonderful career, finishing second in league scoring to teammate Phil Esposito. Orr’s knees still had, at this point, about six-and-a-half hockey seasons left in them.

“Eulogies For Each Other” Maclean’s called their feature, which offered up side-by-side first-person odes. Orr’s to Howe calls him a fantastic hockey player and an amazing guy. It includes an obligatory anecdote of meeting Number 9 on the ice and receiving a first lesson, i.e. a good shot. “He was a tough son of a moose,” Orr says, not to mention “the finest athlete of them all” — in any sport. “I mean you can’t say anything. The guy has got to be the greatest. He’s still the greatest.”

As for Howe on Orr, here he’s what he had to say in 1971, condensed and (why not) poemized:

He was just a snotty-nosed kid
when I first met him.
Maybe 13 years old.
We were visiting
a summer camp
near Parry Sound
and somebody said,
“Watch this kid,
he’s going to be a great one.”
It couldn’t have been
to the truth.

The thing
that amazes me
is his quickness.
Because of that quickness
any move he makes
has got to be exceptional.

I talk to
Bill Quackenbush
who is in Boston
and who sees Bobby
day after day
and I guess
he does things
that just
pop your eyes out.
Any time you play
against him
you’re aware
of his talent.
It’s not only
his puck control.
With that quickness,
plus the ability
to walk around anybody,
and that heavy shot —
and I think he’s got
one of the
better shots
in hockey —
he’s got everything
going for him.
And he doesn’t
make mistakes —
and how can you
improve on that?

You have to chase him
because if you don’t
he’ll kill you.

Let’s face it, he’s the thinking power.

Bobby is a puck
control artist
and whenever
you get a control artist
you’re going to draw
a lot of hits.
What I like about him is
that he’s man enough
that he can take it,
almost to the point
where he sets himself up
and just as he’s
about to get hit
he’ll get
the pass away
and maybe
set up
a three-on-one

I guess Bobby is
no different
from a lot of athletes
— every now
and then
they like
to take the shirt
and tie off
and get back
in the wilderness
and catch a few fish.

Bobby is a great kid.
The whole Howe family
admires him.
I hope

breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm,, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.


worth the weight

Claims for Camille Henry’s fame might include the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1954 or the 1958 Lady Byng that recognized his mix of good manners and superior skills. They might reference, equally, the chase he took up in 1960 when a high-spirited fan smacked him in the face with his own stick. The latter was a year after this portrait was taken, or two years after yet another newspaper article made the rounds focussing on his weight, or lack thereof. Spoiler alert: at 24, he was on the smaller side, 5’7”, “a scrawny-looking French-Canadian youngster,” as profiled by an unnamed Associated Press correspondent, “who answers to the nickname of Camille the Eel.”

This was January of 1958, when Henry’s 23 goals happened to be more than anyone else had scored in the NHL to that point, ahead of Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Dickie Moore of Montreal. (Both would end up passing Henry by season’s end; he finished the year with 32 to Howe’s 33 and Moore’s 36.)

“Camille weighs about 149 pounds soaking wet,” the AP explained, “which he usually is after most of the games in the bruising, contact-filled sport.”

Henry’s view? “I figure being light helps me,” he said. “I can sometimes squeeze in among the bigger men, get my stick in the way of the puck and get it past the goalie. If I was heavier I might not be able to maneuver so well.”

(Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343730)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.

“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.

• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959

Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.

It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.

Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”

Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”

Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”

Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”

The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”

“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.

Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.

It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”

Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!

MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.

A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”

Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”

Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.

Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”

Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.

The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”


this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)


johnny bower: when his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won

I don’t know of anybody playing with Johnny who ever had a bad word to say about him. He’s just one of those wonderful fellows who comes along that’s tolerant of everything. If trouble is there, he’ll enjoy it and try to find a way to get out of it. I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face. When his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won. If you try a hundred per cent, then you should have no bad feelings about the outcome. That was relayed to me once and I think somebody must have told Johnny the same thing. There’s a good picture of us together when the Leafs won the Cup in 1963 and I’ve got my arm around him at centre ice, congratulating him. I felt it was the right thing to do. He was an old friend and I had to go congratulate him.

• Gordie Howe in his foreword to The China Wall, Bob Duff’s 2006 Johnny Bower biography.


(Image: Stephen Smith)

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 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)