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NHL Centennial

100 Greatest Players portrait artist enjoyed brush with greatness

Tony Harris spent past year creating images of legends for League's Centennial celebration

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL - Tony Harris was taking a long, slow walk Saturday morning around the past year of his life, 100 paintings mounted on aluminum easels in historic Windsor Station.


[RELATED: Complete NHL Centennial coverage | NHL 100 portraits]


Harris was commissioned by the NHL last November to paint 11-by-14-inch portraits of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, a pantheon of legends selected by a blue-ribbon panel to celebrate the League's Centennial.

On Friday, a year and a day after he'd been commissioned, Harris' 100 framed portraits were displayed on the upper concourse of Bell Centre for a private event attended by about 500 Montreal Canadiens season ticket-holders, a casual meet and greet featuring Hall of Famers Ray Bourque, Yvan Cournoyer, Rod Gilbert, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich and Denis Savard.

On Saturday, the portraits were moved for a weekend public viewing to adjacent Windsor Station, which, from 1889 to 1993, was the stately point of rail arrival and departure for millions.

Video: Harris on the task of painting the Top 100 portraits

Three hours before the exhibition was opened, Harris strolled slowly around the huge horseshoe display, shooting souvenir videos of his work covering a century of players from those who shone in the NHL's earliest days to a handful of its current stars.

"I finished last Sunday with Wayne Gretzky," Harris said. "I had to take my daughter to soccer and I had to get Wayne done so I could get her to her game. Now, it's one of those things when people say, 'You must be so relieved to have this finished,' but it hasn't really sunk in yet."

We first spoke about this project in mid-January, when Harris was 11 paintings into the commission. At the time, he knew the identity of the first 33 of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, the next 67 coming to him at month's end. And since early this year, the 53-year-old native of Lakefield, Ontario, has been doing little else in his Ottawa studio, drawing his subjects from carefully chosen photographs, then transferring that work to his painting. He estimated then that each would take him 20-25 hours to complete.

It was a dream assignment for an artist and self-described goalie geek -- "I'm a former goalie who took every shot high and hard" -- who in the third grade north of Toronto pencil-sketched his favorite player, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito.

Harris didn't know when we spoke in January whether Esposito would be one of his portraits. Indeed, Tony O was there when the list expanded to its full roster in late January, and his Esposito is one of many paintings that is startling in its realism. There might be none better than hisstyling of Canadiens icon Maurice "Rocket" Richard, whose famously intense glare he has captured as clearly as the most dramatic photo.

Harris might not have a clear-cut favorite among the 100 legends he's painted, but his portrait of Toronto Maple Leafs' Darryl Sittler perhaps comes closest.

"I'm not a huge Sittler fan and I was never a Leafs fan," he said. "But I think the hair… there's athleticism to it, there's a likeness. That's the era when he scored 10 points in one game (Feb. 7, 1976), which I think is remarkable. I remember that night. That one just keeps coming back to me."

The NHL released the portraits on its website weekly, two at a time, during the Centennial year, and Harris chuckles about some of the feedback.

"You've got hockey nerds like me who know that Gordie Howe is too young to have the "C" on his sweater," he said. "But you're trying to immortalize people and there's artistic license. That was one of the things I discussed with the League -- if the guy earned a letter, let's not deny him that letter." 

Harris speaks about the five Edmonton Oilers portraits in the group, players all from the same mid- to late 1980s dynasty, and the fact that their uniforms are all similar. The same with four New York Islanders, from their early 1980s powerhouse. 

He jokes that charts, organization and math are not among his strong suits, so it was a challenge to best manage this at times overwhelming commission.

"After the first 11, I went through a period of asking, 'How is this going to be most efficient?' " Harris said. "I would paint three at a time, all the faces first, draw three, then paint three faces. Then with another series I'd do all the gloves. Next, I'd do one start to finish, then two at a time.

"What I figured out is that it didn't really matter. I couldn't find a system that would be faster than just sitting down and painting. The only thing I figured out, and it was more luck than anything, was that I had a lot of Canadiens at the end, so having that palette already mixed for doing red, white and blue saved a bit of time. If I had two or three Canadiens in a row, the paint was wet enough that I could keep moving through them."

A few times, he'd discard a drawing and start over, sometimes because he had a new photo from which to work, other times because he was unsatisfied with the drawing.

"Drawing is the most important part," he said. "If I got that right, it took all the stress away and I was ready to do the painting."

Even with his brushes still damp from this remarkable year, Harris says he's hardly had his fill of hockey. He and his wife will take a short vacation, then he'll begin a large canvas of Oilers' Connor McDavid for the NHL Players' Association, an annual commission to celebrate the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award.

Video: Harris on the process behind the Top 100 portraits

"I don't generally paint this small. It was another learning curve," he said of the 100 portraits. "Doing faces two to three inches high using tiny brushes, trying to get that detail, was a challenge. Maybe 10 paintings in I got a real handle on that in terms of efficiency.

"With McDavid, I'm going back to painting a 36-by-40-inch canvas, and that's going to be really nice."

And with that, he laughed.

"Big, fat brushes."

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