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)

hockey night in the east room: when prime ministers and presidents dine

wh cup

Trophy Case: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes (and gloats over) the Stanley Cup to the White House’s East Room on February 18, 2016. The Chicago Blackhawks were also on hand.

“Canada exports two things to the United States: hockey players and cold fronts. And Canada imports two things from the United States: baseball players and acid rain.”
• Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, speaking at a lunch ahead of Major League’s Baseball’s 1982 All-Star Game, as reported by Michael Farber of the Montreal’s Gazette

Thirty-nine years after Justin Trudeau’s father last dined officially at the White House, Canada’s prime minister will end a busy day of Washington business with a state dinner tonight at President Barack Obama’s place. While we’ve been alerted to what’s on the menu — baked Alaskan halibut casserole; Colorado lamb — what we don’t know at this hour is just how much hockey the two leaders will be talking.

The White House has a long and nuanced hockey history. But ahead of the festivities in the executive mansion’s East Room, a review of earlier White House state dinners for Canadian prime ministers tells us that the game has come up but rarely in the history of official talking — the toasts, the speeches of welcome — that go on when PMs and presidents converge in Washington.

Before tonight, Canadian prime ministers have banqueted seven times at the White House. The first time was in November of 1945 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King paid a visit to Harry Truman. Discussing with reporters a telephone call he’d had with the PM a month before the dinner, Truman was asked whether they’d talked atomic bombs at all. “We discussed every subject,” said the President, “in which Canada and the United States are interested, but I am not at liberty to make any statement.”

Which all but confirms that the two leaders were engaged in bilateral talks regarding how well Bill Mosienko was clicking that fall with the brothers Bentley, Doug and Max, for Chicago’s Black Hawks. Come the actual state dinner — well, British PM Clement Attlee was on hand for that, too, so just to be polite at that point in the post-war world they had more pressing matters to talk about

It continued quiet in terms of high-level hockey-talking. John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower supped together in 1960 without exchanging so much as a token hockey cliché.

Same thing when Diefenbaker met with John F. Kennedy in Washington on February 20, 1961. The Trail Smoke Eaters were over in Czechoslovakia preparing to play for the world championships; in Detroit, Gordie Howe had just scored his 500th NHL goal. The two leaders had no comment, either way.

Lyndon Johnson hosted Lester Pearson on January 22 of 1964. This was a luncheon, mind you, in the White House’s State Dining Room, which means, well, I guess, early in the day and therefore not as momentous a meal as dinner? There were toasts, and President Johnson began his like this:

The Prime Minister asked me if I was going to make a speech and I told him I was going to attempt to, not over three minutes in length, but I would expect loud and vociferous applause.

I choose to feel that this is not just a meeting today between two heads of government, but rather a reunion of neighbors who meet around the dining table in friendship and with affection. Mr. Prime Minister, we in this country are proud of your achievements and we are joined in your purpose. We have applauded your craftsmanship and approved of your leadership from your major role in the creation of the United Nations to your winning of the Nobel Peace Prize and even your performance as defenseman on the Oxford hockey team.

None of the leaders went on the record regarding Bobby Orr, Miracles On Ice, or indeed any hockey matter during Pierre Trudeau’s successive state dinners with Richard Nixon (1969) and Jimmy Carter (1977).

It wasn’t a state occasion in December of 1974 when Trudeau supped at the White House — The Globe and Mail described it as “a stag black-tie dinner” given by President Gerald Ford. They were in the Blue Room, and at 9.15, postprandially, the President toasted his guest. Trudeau responded:

Mr. President, gentlemen, and friends:

When Canadians travel abroad, Mr. President, they spend lots of time explaining to other people how they are different from the Americans. There is a great belief in other lands that Canadians and Americans are exactly the same. I am particularly distressed to find this when I am dealing with the Common Market. We are different, and we have different problems and different economic requirements.

But it does happen that we have to show how similar we are and how close our two peoples are. And the best example I can find, when I have to explain that kind of thing, is to talk about in summer, in the baseball stadium in Montreal where tens of thousands of Canadians get together to cheer for the Canadian team against the visiting American team when every one of the players on both sides is American! [Laughter]

When I have stayed in some of your American cities, it is another story. In winter at your hockey forums, they cheer for the local team, and probably 95 percent of the players on both sides are Canadians — and the best ones.

And this, I think, shows really how close the people are in their goals, in their ways of living, in their love of sports, in their values, even in standards of their own lives.

Brian Mulroney was known to vary a Trudeauvian theme or two: to most Americans, he once said, Canada means snowstorms and Wayne Gretzky.

He followed Trudeau père to the White House, too, when Ronald Reagan had him over, twice, in the 198os.

“Mr. Prime Minister, welcome,” President Reagan said in 1986 when Mulroney stopped in for supper for the first time in 1986. “Allons-y a travail.” Mulroney returned in April of 1988 when, again, nowhere in any of the official wordings did anyone have anything to say about hockey.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one feels sure, would have had a quip or two to offer, about John Ross Robertson, Toronto’s old Blue Shirts, Bruce Ridpath, but our erstwhile hockey-historian-in-chief never made it to the White House for a state dinner.

And tonight? The chances that there will be mentions of hockey when the leaders rise to speak their pieces are, I’m confident, fair to good, if only to continue the bright banter they began last month.

As presidents like to do, Barack Obama had the Stanley Cup over in February to congratulate the holders from Chicago. “It is always fun to have the Stanley Cup here,” he said in remarks that included thoughtful tributes to Kimmo Timonen and Scott Darling. “It truly is the best trophy in sports.” With the Blackhawks having won three Cups during his presidency, he felt he was owed some thanks. “I think it’s pretty clear the kind of luck I’ve brought to this team.”

He was already thinking of tonight, too. “And,” he said, “by the way, we’ve got a state dinner with Canada coming up, so we may just leave it right in the middle of the room.” [Laughter and applause] “We’ll see. We could gloat a little bit. Just to gloat a little bit.” [Applause]

Prime Minister Trudeau wasn’t long in replying, on Twitter:

trudeau obama

 

 

 

remarks by the president (laughter)

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The Los Angeles Kings play the Capitals tonight in Washington, but yesterday they were at the White House, visiting President Barack Obama, as you do when you’ve won the Stanley Cup. Now’s not the time to wonder why the tradition doesn’t extend to Rideau Hall and the Governor-General, too; would it also be impolitic (or at least not cool) to mention that 14 of 23 2014 Kings to have their names etched into the Cup are Canadian-born to just five Americans? Yes, probably.

The Kings took L.A.’s MLS soccer champions, the Galaxy, along with them. From the hockey players the President received (1) an engraved silver stick and (2) a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup with all those 23 (mostly Canadian) names on it. A full transcript of the President’s remarks is available, including soccer quips and praises. From his hockey narration, including original White-House sound effects:

The Kings needed overtime to win their championship — they needed two of them, in fact. And that was the easy part — just to get to the Finals, the Kings had to win three straight Game 7s — all on the road. They dug themselves out of a 3-0 hole against San José in the first round — they’re laughing because they’re thinking, man, let’s try to do it easier next time. (Laughter.) In the Conference Final, they beat my Blackhawks, which is unfortunate. (Laughter.) I mean, first of all, in L.A., there’s not even any ice really. (Laughter.) So you’d think, like, Chicago, where it’s probably 10 degrees below zero today, at least we’d get some hockey. But we’ve won a couple so I can’t complain.

The Kings have done the unthinkable — they have turned a city with no snow and no ice and no winter into a hockey town — (laughter) — complete with an outdoor game in Dodger Stadium. They have done it with a team that L.A. fans have embraced — guys like goalie Jonathan Quick, playoff MVP Justin Williams. The first line of Brown and Kopitar and Gaborik, and Jeff Carter and his “hockey smile.” And of course, Coach Sutter and his one-liners with the press. (Laughter.) I’ve tried the one-liners, by the way, with the press and it never seems to work. (Laughter.)

 

skate of the union

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Hockey players don’t live at the White House, but they sometimes pay a visit, as the Boston Bruins did yesterday. No, wait, that’s not true: a couple of players did live at the U.S. president’s house in and around 1906, and played quite a lot of hockey there. Back to them later, though. First we should say that hockey prowess is, for the most part, a losing proposition in American presidential politics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt played a bit when he was at school, as did John F. Kennedy (not to mention his brothers Ted and Bobby). Mainly, though, history shows that the best hockey players never quite make it to the White House. Continue reading