Ths NHL has just recently finished a special project that was commissioned less than a year ago: to paint the 100 best hockey players in history.
A group of 58 hockey insiders came together last January, and after much deliberation, they were able to choose the 100 best players the league has ever seen. To honor the 100’s achievements, the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had the idea to immortalize these players in a non-traditional-sports artistic media: oil.
And for the past year, the artist Tony Harris has been busy at his easel trying to translate the speed and color and glory of hockey into paint.
Harris grew up not wanting to be a painter, just wanting to be a regular soccer-hockey playing Canadian kid who also enjoyed doodling on the pages of Sports Illustrated. After a stint in the classroom teaching, Harris decided he really didn’t know what he wanted to do; so he fell back on the art skills he was working on during grade school: by painting golf courses. There was, fortunately, a huge market for paintings of people’s favorite golf holes that no other artist in Canada had tapped into.
It was in 2006 that Harris had his first NHL commission; an annual painting of the winner of the Ted Lidsney Award. Soon, Harris became the regular guy the NHL called when they need someone or something painted, including a painting of the Stanley Cup Champions of 2016, the Chicago Blackhawks, which was presented to President Obama as he already had every other piece of Blackhawks merch out there.
Obama reportedly said he was gonna take down the portait of George Washington and replace it with the Blackhawks by Harris.
Now, the 100 NHL greats will be hanging in the Montreal Canadiens’ home rink at Bell Centre, right next door to the hotel where the NHL was founded nearly 100 years ago.
Harris is still the humble hockey player though: “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.’”
What makes Harris’ painting so special is obviously their detail, but also the fact that he was a hockey player. He knows what the cold wind feels like as a person rockets down the rink. He’s seen the focus in another player’s eyes as they charge past you.
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.”
Does seeing and experiencing a moment help an artist capture it better? Based on the energy and life in Harris’ pieces it would feel so.