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)

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)

this week: blessé au bas du corps

CBJPITposter

“I don’t mind seeing pucks,” Minnesota Wild goalstopper Devan Dubnyk said this month. “That’s what I’m here to do.”

Frank Seravalli of TSN.ca got talking to 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers.

Q: You said a couple years ago that you’d like to play until you’re 50. Is that still realistic?

A: I know I’m going to play to 50. I know that — if I don’t get injured. I never said I’m going to play here (in the NHL) until I’m 50. That’s a different story. You can always play ’til 50. There’s a lot of guys that play until 60, you know, just beer hockey.

Q: But what about the NHL?

A: I don’t think I could go until 50. It’s very tough.

Sidney Crosby is at war with Mario Lemieux, according to reports emerging from Pittsburgh, or at least they’re feuding or … mutually miffed? We don’t have a lot of details, so let’s try to get it right, the what-we-know. They’ve fallen out. There’s been a falling out.

Former player Matthew Barnaby is the source for this, at SiriusXM. Could be because they disagree about who’s coaching in Pittsburgh, or else … maybe it’s the 2014 playoffs that soured the relationship. Does this mean Crosby will be traded? “That,” says Barnaby, “I don’t know.”

Someone asked Mario Lemieux about all. “It’s absolutely not true,” he said. “It’s silly.”

Jagr is the cover story in the new issue of Sportsnet magazine, where his age/agelessness is again front and centre. “The time between when I quit hockey and I die,” he tells Kristina Rutherford, measuring air with his hands, “I want it to be the shortest.”

Jagr goes on:

“If I can play til I die, that’s what I will do. What else are you gonna do? Even if you retire, you still will have to go work out, and maybe harder than you do when you play hockey because you don’t wanna look ugly and fat. At least I don’t want to.”

Fans in Toronto are selling blue-and-white striped socks with Mike Babcock’s head at the ankle. They’re called Babsocks, obviously. One of the principals, Jake Mednick, explained the rationale to Sportsnet.ca. “There’s been a lot of negativity, especially last season, around the team, around the organization — and it wasn’t as fun to be a fan anymore,” he said. “We want everyone in the city to have fun and feel good to be Leafs fans.”

No word so far on what the coach himself thinks. He did have a thought, in recent weeks, to add to the flaring debate around how to fertilize scoring in the NHL: bigger nets. Others advocated for slimming down the gear that goaltenders are permitted to pack on.

Said Mike McKenna, sometime NHLer now netminding for the AHL’s Portland Pirates:

“I’ve become completely numb to any pending goalie equipment regulation changes. I’ll play in whatever as long as I’m not getting hurt.”

ECW announced a pair of memoirs they’ll be publishing down the road, in September of 2017: Greg Oliver is assisting Gilles Gratton on Gratoony The Loony, while Sportsnet’s Ken Reid is sidekicking Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.

Also in the works from ECW for 2016: David Dupuis and Waxy Gregoire have been working with Hall of Fame defenceman and erstwhile coach Red Kelly to tell his story.

Stu Cowan from Montreal’s Gazette reported that the Canadiens’ new captain, who’s taking lessons in French this fall, has been greeting reporters with a confident “Bon midi.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs and their goaltenders are working with the man who revamped/rescued Devan Dubnyk’s aforementioned game. The National Post’s David Alter reported that in September, the Leafs officially enlisted the services of “puck-tracking guru” Lyle Mast.

His specialty is something called head trajectory, which is … well, keeping an eye on the puck that’s trying to get by you. It sounds much more interesting when Mast describes it, though, at his Optimum Reaction website:

“Head trajectory impacts the ability to efficiently execute every aspect of your training, development and game play, based on your setup. It empowers the athlete to train on the values of efficiency versus just speed and seeing the puck versus just looking at it. It exposes the difference between being able versus unable to execute your save and post-save responses, eliminating delays.”

Saving and/or post-responding, Montreal puck-seer Carey Price hurt his lower body in some way that required a week’s rest and recovery away from the ice. “It’s always nice to come home,” he said before that. “I always miss the smell of the mountains.”

Price disclosed his injury, which is to say Montreal did, announcing that he’d been hurt in an end-of-October game against Edmonton. Or, sorry: he sustained the injury. He didn’t disclose his injury, which is also to say that Montreal didn’t, to the extent there was no press release describing where and how it hurt, when and wherefore. Because — of course not. Why would you pinpoint your own weaknesses for other teams? Carey Price’s ailments are proprietary information.

“Pricey est fait fort,” tweeted P.K. Subban. “Tout ce qu’on sait pour l’instant, c’est qu’il est évalué.”

Also in Minnesota, Jason Pominville hasn’t been scoring goals. “You have to dig deep and find a way,” he advised The St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Right now I’m kind of in that boat where pucks aren’t finding me, and when they are, they’re bouncing. I’ve just got to find a find a way to put one in.”

“Blessé au bas du corps,” said La Presse Canadienne.

“The thing is,” confided Montreal coach Michel Therrien a couple of days later, “it’s nothing major. He had some treatment and said Friday morning that he had a certain amount of pain, so the medical staff didn’t take any chances and kept him off the ice. He went to see the doctor when we returned and our medical team recommended that he take a week off.”

The week turned into three. The diagnosis continued undisclosed, non-divulged, irrevealed. Mike Condon, Montreal’s back-up, was asked to fill in. “I’m not going to try and be Carey,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can.”

He was, nevertheless, pretty good, going 5-1-2 in the eight games Price missed in November. Price went to New York with his father, Jerry, to get a second opinion, which very well could have cheered him, or confirmed what he already knew, or even, possibly, surprised everyone. For most of us it was nothing new insofar it was (of course) kept secret.

“We’re not the Russian Red Army team,” Leafs’ winger Brad Boyes mentioned a week or two back, or several, in hearing of Stephen Whyno from The Canadian Press, “so we’ve got to make sure that we’re out there playing our style, our game.”

“We’ve had some shots and chances,” said Taylor Hall, regretting an Edmonton Oiler loss to St. Louis, “but not enough to create momentum for our team. It’s disappointing.”

When Price returned to the Montreal net last week, he helped the Canadiens beat the New York Islanders. “Carey Price was Carey Price,” Therrien said afterwards.

He beat them again over the weekend, and then he beat the Rangers, mostly — in that game, a 5-1, he gave way to Condon after two periods.

So everybody wondered, as Sportsnet.ca did:

whats going on

“The reason it’s all so hush-hush,” Renaud Lavoie from TVA Sports told TSN, “is nobody knows what’s going on.”

Which makes sense.

Someone from Montreal’s Gazette spotted Price limping through the lobby of the team hotel Thursday morning.

All Therrien would say was that, yes, it was that previous injury nobody really wanted to talk about in the first place. “He tweaked it.”

Lavoie said that it was pretty definitely the right leg, the right knee is what people who knew these things knew, though Lavoie was also thinking there was more to it than that, could be a combination of things, a hip, a groin. “If you look at him right now, there’s a lot of question marks.” Continue reading

this week: are you a hockey player or are you just someone who plays hockey?

Embed from Getty Images

Forty-three years ago this week, visiting Moscow with a Canadian rep team, a right winger, Waterloo-born, in Ontario, went shopping. The Minnesota North Stars’ Bill Goldsworthy that is, seen above: he bought a balalaika.

Fast forward to this past week, when an NHL deputy commissioner was talking about newly enhanced security measures at all 30 of the league’s rinks. Fans going to games will now have to walk through magnetometers — those metal detectors you know from airports.

“For better or for worse,” Bill Daly said, “we live in an uncertain world, and it has to be of paramount importance to us, the health and safety of our fans. An extra precaution that might take an extra 30 seconds for each fan I think is more than worth it if it means you’re creating a safer environment for your fanbase.”

A right winger, meanwhile, sat down to read a statement to a gathering of reporters on the opening day of the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp in South Bend, Indiana.

“I am confident,” Patrick Kane said, “once all the facts are brought to light, I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong.”

Anything, he may have meant. Accused of sexually assaulting a woman in August, he’d arrived to play hockey while a New York state grand jury considered whether or not he’ll be indicted.

Chicago management said they saw no problem with having Kane attend camp as though nothing had happened. Fans cheered when he stepped on the ice for the first time.

Up north and over the border, a former centreman — the greatest ever to have played the game? — was surprised, this week, by just how excellent this collection of “better casual clothing” is that Sears Canada is selling in his name.

The new No 99 Wayne Gretzky Collection will (and I quote) keep men looking neat, handsome and fashionable this Fall.

20150909_C7711_PHOTO_EN_493076These are polos we’re talking about, t-shirts, knit jackets, hoodies. Mercerized cottons, cashmeres and merino wool give this collection a luxurious feel, offering men a complete look: I have this on good authority. “The long-sleeved 100% cotton shirts come in a variety of patterns, including plaid, printed and checked.”

“Sears got my style down when they created this collection,” Gretzky confided in a press release. “I had the opportunity to wear all the pieces, from the t-shirts and sweaters to the jeans and dress pants, and the style, quality and value is excellent. I thoroughly expected it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it would be this good.”

At that Blackhawks press conference, Kane took questions from reporters.

Q: Patrick, how tough is it to focus on hockey with so many things going on right now?

Kane: I’m focussed. I’m happy to be here at camp. It’s an unbelievable venue here at Notre Dame. There’s a lot of history in this venue. I know we’ve had some success coming back here the last couple of years. It’s good to be back here again. I’m happy to see all my teammates and get done with our fitness testing today. It seems like we have a fun weekend ahead of us, so I’m looking forward to enjoying that. I’d like to keep to hockey questions only.

Q: Are you going to stop drinking?

Kane: Hey, Mark, I appreciate the question. I wish I could answer those questions right now, but there is a legal matter going on that I can’t answer that.

Q: Patrick, to all the people who believed this stuff was behind you, do you feel like you let them down, do you feel like you let the organization down this summer?

Kane: I appreciate the question, David. I’d like to answer that, but at this time with the legal process ongoing it’s just not a question I can answer. I appreciate it. I’m sorry I can’t answer it and thank you for the question, though.

PR Man: Thank you very much. We’ll excuse Patrick here.

Kane may be more important than ever to the Blackhawks, said someone, a pundit, referring to the vital cogs the defending Stanley Cup-champions lost over the summer.

“It doesn’t look like any of it has affected him,” said another Chicago winger, Bryan Bickell, asked about Kane and possible distractions. Also, sic: “He feels comfortable and when he left he was a happy Patrick Kane from when he left is what he is now.”

A Montreal defenceman pledged C$10-million over seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation who, for its part, unveiled The P.K. Subban Atrium last week. The man himself was on hand to say a few words, including several to Elise Béliveau about how he hoped that this was something that would have made her late husband Jean feel proud. Also:

“Sometimes I try to think, ‘P.K., are you a hockey player, or are you just someone who plays hockey?’

“I just play hockey. Because one day I won’t be a hockey player anymore, I’ll just be someone who played hockey. So what do I want people to remember me for other than being a hockey player? Well, every time you walk into this hospital, you’ll know what I stand for.

“In life, I believe you are not defined by what you accomplish, but by what you do for others. That’s how I live my life.

“This is not about hockey or about how many goals I score next year or even how the team does.” Continue reading

this week and others: hammy trpělivě dřel

Keep Calm and Carey On: That's what the T-shirts say, at least. Montreal's Hart Trophy candidate as wrought by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his wonderful work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/

Keep Calm and Carey On: That’s what the T-shirts say, at least. Montreal’s Hart Trophy candidate as wrought by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his wonderful work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/

Jaromir Jagr is the third best forward in hockey history, according to Corey Masisak of nhl.com.

He ran the numbers — they’re here — and that was his finding. “Jagr is by no means the third most iconic forward,” he wrote.

He’s certainly not the third most popular. Critics of the statement above will immediately turn to words like leadership and toughness to try and prove it wrong.

That’s OK, but Jagr’s ability to dominate during his prime, which happened to be one of the toughest eras in the history of the NHL to produce offense, along with his excellence well into his 40s is why he deserves to be considered the best forward not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

“Fuck that,” the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers was saying last week, Ed Snider. Not about Jagr; he’d been asked about patience and building a Stanley Cup-contender, waiting two, three years to compete. Nope, he said: the time is now. Or, at least, next year, since the Flyers won’t be playing in the 2015 playoffs.

“They beat us all over the ice,” is what the Leafs’ coach, Peter Horachek, said after St. Louis waylaid his team by a score of 6-1. “They beat us from the beginning to the end. They beat us all over the place.”

Gordie Howe’s family had a jam-packed 87th birthday planned for him March 31, according to Helene St. James from The Detroit Free Press. All being well, his family had a barbecue planned, and a cake, maybe some catfishing. (He’s living with his daughter, these days, in Lubbock, Texas, where it’s catfish season, apparently.)

Roman Josi is the Erik Karlsson of the West, said his (Josi’s) coach in Nashville, Barry Trotz, if CP’s Stephen Whyno is to be trusted.

Evgeny Romasko became the first Russian-born referee to work an NHL game a few weeks back, lending his whistle to a meeting in Detroit between Red Wings and Oilers. Back home in Russia, former pairs skater looked to the heavens as he hoped that Romasko might land a full-time NHL contract for next year.

“If we compare the first match with Gagarin’s flight,” Zaitsev told RIA Novosti, “the contract for the season with the NHL will be on a scale with the landing of the first man on the moon, even though he was not Russian.”

Ottawa beat the New York Islanders earlier in the month, and after it was over Senators coach Dave Cameron revealed the reason why. “You can’t win in this league without goaltending. Hammy was real good.”

Nearby, Islanders coach Jack Capuano was explaining the loss. “We have to stay the course and grind it out,” he confided. “Our structure has to be there and we have to execute and play with pace. But if you can’t score, you can’t win.”

The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno checked in on Toronto’s Leafs, with particular thoughts on Phil Kessel’s recent defence of his captain.

No. 81 wasn’t wildly off the mark in his extraordinary outburst on behalf of Dion Phaneuf, although the aim was wide. If Kessel wanted to unload on the bitchin’ brigade, he should have targeted the ex-Leafs who’ve found a second career as radio and TV pundits because they’re the most venomous bashers of the bunch, their insider analysis far more scathing than any critical salvo launched by a beat reporter or columnist. And on the evidence, they’re right.

Of the odious tweeters and bloggers nothing more need be said. But it’s still unclear what exactly got Kessel so hot. He ain’t saying. We’re expected to read his mind, which oftentimes seems an empty cavity.

Kyle Turris, Ottawa centreman: “Hammy is standing on his head for us. I can’t even explain how well he’s playing. It’s unbelievable.”

Scott Gomez wrote about his hockey trials and tribulations at The Players Tribune:

Life and hockey kind of mirror each other in the sense that when you’re having good times, it’s difficult to imagine how things will ever go wrong. And when you’re having bad times, well, yeah.

Czech nhl.com was on the story, too:

“Hammy” ale dál trpělivě dřel a postupně se vypracoval v kvalitního gólmana. I díky zdravému sebevědomí a velkému odhodlání. Ostatně dvouletá smlouva od Sens nebyla jen dílem štěstí, nejprve totiž uspěl na zkoušce na jejich farmě v Binghamtonu.

Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau talked about what’s working with the high-scoring line he’s on with Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan:

“The chemistry is there. For me, it’s the chemistry. When you get to play with a player or a few players throughout the whole season, you just feel really comfortable with them on and off the ice. You learn more and more about them and where they’re going to be at on the ice and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

“Hammy has been exceptional,” was another thing that Dave Cameron was saying in Ottawa. “Everybody knows that.” Continue reading

this week: is god a jets fan?

elixir

“Hej, Heja, Heja, Cracovia Mistrzem Hokeja,” chanted the fans in Poland this week, after Cracovia Krakow beat GKS Jastrzebie in game seven of the finals of the Polish national championships.

“I’ve never even been at an NHL playoff game,” one of Toronto’s goalies, James Reimer, told one of The Toronto Star’s columnists, Rosie DiManno.

“Is God a Jets fan?” a reporter from The Free Press asked Winnipeg’s team chaplain this week. Great question. “I’ve always been taught that God loves everybody and God loves all the teams,” said Lorne Korol. “And in fact we pray for a spirit of competition for our players, we pray that they would leave it all on the ice for that audience of one, the one being God. And we pray for their safety, both on and off the ice. But we never pray for victory or good weather.”

Alex Ovechkin explained a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders this week. “Holtsy play unbelievable, make the biggest save, keep us in the game and big win,” he said.

“The history of icing is a harrowing one, involving horrible injuries and even death,” wrote Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times. This after Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen was injured in a race to touch up a puck for icing. Puzzled Damien Cox from The Toronto Star: “Guy hurt on icing, immediate calls for rule changes; guy gets brain injury in a fight, ho-hum, part of the game #absurd”

On Hockey Night in Canada, Ron Maclean called Toronto’s Nazem Kadri “Nazem-a-taz.” Kadri had just scored a hattrick against Ottawa, so he was happy, as were his teammates, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, who stood behind him. “Hard-hat hockey,” is what Toronto plays, said McLaren. Don Cherry was there, too, and he kissed Kadri.

Before that, Maclean said to Kadri, “Your parents knew, your teachers knew, in London, that that was kind of, that you had the spit, you had the self-confidence, and you didn’t take losing lightly, so … congrats is the simplest way to say it.”

“Thank you,” said Kadri, as well as “Lups is a great player” and “My old man’s a pretty gritty guy, too.”

“Who taught you to hit?” Maclean had asked him, “because I know you were good at volleyball and basketball.”

The New York Rangers were having troubles scoring goals, so reporters on the beat asked coach John Tortorella why. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

A puck, slapshot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, flew into Sidney Crosby’s jaw, which broke, shedding teeth and blood. Everybody grimaced. Nobody wanted to think the worst. Crosby left the game.

“I just know,” said his coach Dan Bylsma, after the game, “he had some issues with his teeth. Just from the replay I know that.”

Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle wondered, “Is that the hockey gods sending a message?” Continue reading

blogs like jagr

With Danny Briere, Claude Giroux has been the best of the Philadelphia Flyers this spring, playing the frantic, feisty game he plays in between the scoring and assisting and winning all those face-offs he does. But if the Flyers fall out of the playoffs tonight — they’re down three games to one in their eastern semi-final against New Jersey — they’ll do it without Giroux. He’s been suspended for a game for nudging, last game, the head of the Devils’ Dainius Zubrus.

I looked to Twitter today to see whether Giroux might have something succinct to say on the subject but no, it’s been all quiet over at @28CGiroux since the end of the first-round series against Pittsburgh in April. Which is maybe not so surprising. None of the hockey players seems to have much to say, Twitterwise. For the readers in the crowd, what we’d been hoping for, I think — if I can speak for the group — was a flash or two of insight, a shred of inside colour, a telling phrase, something wise or funny that Maxime Talbot might have observed in an unguarded moment.

It hasn’t happened. Hockey’s Twitterists have gone silent. Either they’ve been shut down by management (Rangers’ coach John Tortorella is supposed to have banned his players from social media for the duration of the playoffs) or else they’ve self-suspended. Too — busy? tired? Maybe so.

What seems more likely is that the hockey players have determined — and are, in their silence, tacitly admitting — a hard truth: you can’t write and play high-level hockey both at the same time. Eddie Shore used to say the same thing about sex with your wife. Not that you couldn’t write and have sex; it was the sex and the hockey that didn’t mix. But. Anyway. What we’re learning this year, I think, as the weeks go on is that as a player you have to decide where you’re going to channel your focus and your intensity: playoff hockey or meaningful comment on social media? Continue reading