Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.
This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.
Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.
In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”
Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:
We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.
Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.
My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.
The Chicago Blackhawks honoured their two most distinguished Espositos last night, Tony and Phil, ahead of the game with the St. Louis Blues at the United Centre. You can watch the tribute video here below; above, those are Tony’s hands as he readies them for a night’s work in February of 1981 at Chicago’s Stadium.
The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.
Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock , some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England . Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby  and Grace Nelson , Rose Pauli  and Agnes Mather Bell . The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.
Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.”  Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley.  In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English.  Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday, causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” 
The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. 
You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake.  Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. 
Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller.  They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. 
The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner.  They teach their boys to knit.  They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30.  They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” 
In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. 
King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.
Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”
Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”
Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:
They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.
While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincingand a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).
Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18thin the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?
There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.
If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.
Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”
Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”
And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”
Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.
Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?
W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”
Final score: 11-0.
Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”
A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”
One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of ourteams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.
Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.
Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”
Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.
A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.
“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”
Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”
The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.
The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”
In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.
Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.
Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.
And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?
Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”
That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.
“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.
GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.
Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easy, poor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.
“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.
The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”
She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”
Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”
Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”
Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.
Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.
You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.
Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t ant to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”
(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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
(LaFontaine and Esposito images courtesy of Tony Harris. Messier and paintbox photos by Stephen Smith)
For the Russians, the vast Ukraine-like wheatlands of Manitoba and a rather dour crowd of 10,000 provided what Coach Vsevolod Bobrov described as “the most suitable environment yet.”
“We are very happy with Winnipeg. We found the people much like our own.”
• Tim Burke, Montreal Gazette, September 7, 1972
September 6 was a Wednesday in 1972. Four days had passed since the Saturday when Canada’s hockey team lost, shockingly, to the visiting Soviets in a rout. They’d redeemed themselves, a little, to the west, with a Monday win in Toronto. Now the teams had moved on to Winnipeg, where they were preparing to meet again under the gaze of the world’s largest rink-portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
Tuesday, in Munich, at the Olympics there, eight Arab terrorists had made hostages of 11 men from the Israeli team. After long hours of violence and blood, false hopes and failed negotiations, rescue efforts that didn’t succeed, the Israelis were dead.
The sports went on. Tuesday morning, even as the crisis continued, the International Olympic Committee’s American president, Avery Brundage, announced that the Games would continue as planned. “Canoe racing had already begun,” Red Smith wrote in his New York Times column. “Wrestling started an hour later. Before long, competition was being held in 11 of the 22 sports on the Olympic calendar.”
Not until 4 p.m. did some belated sense of decency dictate suspension of the obscene activity, and even then exception was made for games already in progress. They went on and on while hasty plans were laid for a memorial service tomorrow.
Wednesday morning 80,000 people filled the Olympic Stadium to mourn and pay tribute. “This service,” said an IOC statement issued beforehand, “should make clear the Olympic idea is stronger than terror and violence.”
I don’t know that there was any talk of cancelling the hockey game in Winnipeg. There was a discussion about how the hockey players might honour those who’d died in Munich. A minute’s silence before the puck dropped seemed like an appropriate gesture. A couple of directors from Hockey Canada wanted to go further: Maple Leaf Gardens president Harold Ballard and Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, decided that Team Canada should wear black armbands. Ballard hoped all the players would. “But I don’t know,” he said, “if the Russians will go for it.”
Ballard had other plans, too. He was going to organize some kind of trophy, or plaque. “It’ll have the names of the Israelis engraved on it,” he told Dick Beddoes for The Globe and Mail. “I’d like to have Mark Spitz dedicate it for the Hockey Hall of Fame before the first Leaf game in the Gardens this fall.”
Georgi Guzinov was the Soviet team’s trainer. The day before the first game in Montreal, he’d predicted that after three games the teams would have a win each to their credit along with a tie. He was right, of course: in Winnipeg the score was 4-4.
Paul Henderson blamed himself. “I blew three chances,” he said afterwards. Tim Burke wrote in The Gazette that if not for the goaltenders, Canada’s Tony Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak for the USSR, the score might have been 10-10.
Canada’s assistant coach, John Ferguson, said he was relieved “to settle for half a loaf.” Canada had been leading by 3-1 before they surrendered two shorthanded goals in the second period. Canada’s scorers were J.P. Parise, Jean Ratelle, Phil Esposito, and Paul Henderson while Vladimir Petrov, Valery Kharlamov, Yuri Lebedev, and Alexander Bodunov got the Soviet goals.
The Munich tribute didn’t go quite as planned. A few hours before the game, officials from the two teams met to discuss the armbands. Canadian coach Harry Sinden announced the outcome: there wouldn’t be any. “We decided that as one group of athletes paying tribute to another group of athletes, the minute’s silence was sufficient.”
He was half-right, anyway. On the ice, so as not to interfere with timing for the TV broadcast, that hushed minute was cut down to 30 seconds.
As for Ballard’s trophy, not sure what happened there. Mark Spitz was absent when the Leafs opened their season at home to Chicago on October 7, as was the Leafs’ Moscow hero, Paul Henderson, who was day-to-day (The Globe suggested) with aches and emotional drainage.
I’m not even sure that Ballard was at the game. But then he did have a lot on his mind that fall. He’d been convicted in August of fraud and theft, and he watched Canada and the Soviets play while he was free on $50,000 bail. Lawyers had agreed to postpone sentencing until after the all-important series was over. It wasn’t until October 20 that he learned he was going to a penitentiary for three years.