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)

my first hockey game: kirstie mclellan day

Hockey She Wrote: Wayne Gretzky and Kirstie McLellan Day.

Hockey squandered its best chance of snaring William Faulkner as a fan in January of 1955. I’m still not entirely sure who’s to blame for failing to catch the Nobel laureate’s imagination. Could have been the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which Faulkner attended on assignment for Sports Illustrated to witness the hometown Rangers take on the all-powerful Montreal Canadiens. They were smoking, I guess, the fans, and maybe altogether too raucous for Faulkner’s placid soul. Or maybe was it the not-very-good Rangers that turned him off? Unless it was hockey itself: “discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical,” he called it when he wrote it all up.

In a book I wrote a few years ago about the spells that hockey casts, and the shadows, I spent some time with Faulkner — Ernest Hemingway, too — trying to suss out just how they could have failed to have been enchanted by hockey. I also wrote about Evelyn, Viscountess Byng of Vimy in Puckstruck, and how the first hockey game she saw hooked her for life.

This was in Ottawa in 1921, in the first fall of her husband’s tenure as governor-general. The visiting Toronto St. Patricks beat the Senators 5-4. “It was one of the cleanest games on record,” a local newspaper reported next morning, “not a player decorating the penalty box. The checking was heavy and the ceaseless pace a menace to temper-control, but all turned in a splendid record.” Babe Dye scored a couple of goals for the winning team, and Ken Randall scored a couple of others. Also on the ice were Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Frank Boucher. Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard presented Lady Byng with a bouquet of American Beauty roses.

It may be that this first exposure to hockey, pacey yet peaceable, set the standard by which Lady Byng judged the sport from there on after. When subsequent games didn’t meet the mark, did she see no other alternative than to save the game from itself by donating her trophy for skilled, gentlemanly conduct?

Hard to say. I don’t, in general, know what these initial exposures to hockey reveal about the first-timer in question, or about hockey. Still, I like the idea of someone venturing for the first time into a rink, happening on hockey. What do they see? How does it hit them?

Beyond the book, I’ve continued to collect first-time accounts as I’ve come across them. I’ve written about the Dionne quintuplets, and about Henry Ford sitting in as Larry Aurie and Ebbie Goodfellow Detroit Falcons lost to Bill Cook’s New York Rangers in 1932. Browsing the file I’ve built up, I find clippings about World War I heroes of the Royal Navy attending their first hockey games, and a photograph from the night in 1995 a future king of Spain watched Doug Gilmour’s Toronto Maple Leafs slip past Theo Fleury’s Calgary Flames. I’ve got a notice here from 1936 that tells me that the entire roster of New Zealand’s vaunted rugby team, the All Blacks, saw their first NHL game at the Forum. (Canadiens and Rangers tied 1-1 that time.)

This fall, I’ve been seeking out more stories of first encounters with NHL hockey. None of them, so far, have come in from Nobel laureates or viscountesses; unlike Faulkner and Lady Byng, my correspondents were all familiar with the game, as fans or players or both, before they got to a big-league rink. They are writers and historians, journalists, poets, former players I’ve been soliciting to ask about the first NHL game they attended, who they saw, what made an impression. They’ve been generous in their responses. You’ll be seeing these recollections in this space in the coming weeks, if you keep a watch.

First up, today: Kirstie McLellan Day.

Earlier this year, BookNet Canada released a list of the 150 bestselling Canadian books since 2007. The list of authors implicated in this is an impressive one. Robert Munsch not only tops the chart with Love You Forever, he recurs throughout, with a remarkable 34 other titles. As noted by BookNet, Margaret Atwood has four books on the list, while Alice Munro and Chris Hadfield are some of those writers with three. Not so noticed: five of the bestsellers (including the top-rated hockey book) have Day’s name on the cover.

fleuryThe Calgary writer, journalist, TV host and producer has been prolific for a while. Her hockey streak started in 2009, when she worked with Theo Fleury on his autobiography, Playing With Fire. (Ranked 17th on the BookNet 150, it has outsold Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff, The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, and Stephen J. Harper’s A Great Game.)

Day went on to score assists on books by Bob Probert (Tough Guy in 2010) and Ron MacLean (Cornered in 2011 and Hockey Towns in 2015), and on Wayne Gretzky’s 99 Stories of the Game (2016). Still to come is Hellbent, a memoir by Marty McSorley. Kelly Hrudey’s Calling The Shots, out this fall, is her latest collaboration.

Kirstie McLellan Day, then, on the first NHL game she saw for herself.

Growing up in Regina, everybody knew somebody who had something to do with the NHL. My mom grew up across the street from “little Dickie Irvin” who became one of our very best hockey broadcasters for decades. He broke his arm climbing her family fence when he was four years old. Amazing guy. A living encyclopedia of hockey stories. Dick is now a good friend and a source for countless anecdotes in the hockey books I write. One of my dad’s best friends was Billy Hicke, who played for the Canadiens and the California Seals. Gordie Howe who was born in a farmhouse in Floral, just up the highway near Saskatoon, came to town regularly to sign autographs for kids at Simpson’s Department Store. My husband, Larry, was one of those kids. He first met Gordie when he was ten. The hockey card that Gordie signed hangs in his office.

With all those connections, hockey should have been in my blood from the start, but I was a late bloomer. Very late. It wasn’t until the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in the early 80s that I started to take an interest. Don’t judge.

Larry was the anchorman at CFAC TV, the local station that carried the Flames games. He got tickets once in a while and so he dragged me to my first NHL game, April 21, 1988. The Smythe Division Finals against the hated Edmonton Oilers. Standing room only and LOUD.

I remember Wayne skating out and the crowd booing. He seemed to revel in it. And then Messier skated over with that big shit-eating grin of his, and they were laughing. Oooo, that pissed people off. We were on Wayne every time he touched the puck. Anytime he went down or skated near an official, the rink echoed with a chorus of, “Whiner! Whiner! Whiner!” Never fazed him. Just seemed to make him play harder. Wayne scored the OT winner. Damn you, Gretzky. We filed out tired, elated, and dejected.

I never dreamed that someday I’d be sitting around his kitchen table with him writing a book about it. Um, the booing and the whiner part never came up, so I’d appreciate it if you kept that part just between us.


(Image: Kirstie McLellan Day)


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)

post captains

stevie y canada post

Stamp Act: Canada Post launched its newest line of hockey stamps this week with six sticky-backed forwards. “The 2016 NHL® Great Canadian Forwards stamps highlight some of the greatest goal-scorers ever to play in the NHL,” the press release touts, and yes, it is an impressive cadre: Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, and Sidney Crosby.

Hard to fathom how the crown corporation came up with this particular group. Crosby, of course, is a natural — who wouldn’t want Canada’s own captain on their lettermail? But if it is indeed meant to reflect distinguished goal-getters, then why no Wayne Gretzky, best of them all? He already got on a stamp, of course, in 2000, so maybe that’s all he gets. Same with Gordie Howe and Marcel Dionne, the next ones down the all-time list of high-scoring Canadians. If that’s how the choosing was done, statistically, then, yes, Phil Esposito is deserving. But what about Mike Gartner, who outscored both Messier and Yzerman? Nothing against Lafleur, but he’s way down the list, well below Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille. Is that really fair? And what about Dave Andreychuk? How do you think Andreychuk feels knowing that Sittler got in ahead of him having scored 170 fewer career goals? How would you feel, philatelically speaking?


that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park


“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading

oil parting


Once, when it was still Northlands Coliseum, the Edmonton Oilers that called the rink home won five Stanley Cups in  seven years. The rink has another name now, Rexall Place, and the Oilers that have skated there recently haven’t reached the playoffs let alone gone all the way, but the old rink still has its history if not much future. Tonight, as the team plays its last game in the old barn, which opened in November of 1974, 150 erstwhile Oilers, players and staff, will be on hand to see their underachieving successors host the Vancouver Canucks. The guest list features Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Ryan Smyth, and Dave Semenko, along with several members of the WHA old guard, including Al Hamilton and Eddie Mio and Ron Chipperfield. The Oilers will open next season at their new $480-million home, Rogers Place.

 (Photo, from 2012, courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt, whose work you’ll find on flickr)