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Centennial Portraits

NHL gives artist commission of lifetime

For Tony Harris of Ottawa, painting portraits of 100 Greatest Players 'is maybe the greatest job I could ever get'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

With every stroke of his brush applying oil to canvas in the studio of his Ottawa home, Tony Harris is living a dream.

An exhausting, challenging, "What in the world have I got myself into?" dream, but a dream nonetheless.

Harris, 53, is hip-deep in production of paintings that by project's end, which he hopes is September, will celebrate the 100 Greatest NHL Players.

He will complete 100 canvases, each framed 11-by-14 inch portrait of the players who were voted by a Blue-Ribbon Panel as the top players in the League's first 100 years.

"Honest to God, my wife and I still look at each other say, 'I don't think we get what this is yet,'" Harris said with a laugh during a recent conversation. He had 11 paintings finished at the time, which sounds better than saying he had 89 still to be done.

"This project is taking up a huge amount of time and my family is being really good about it," he said. "But as a Canadian, as a hockey fan who grew up watching the game, this is maybe the greatest job I could ever get."


See Tony Harris' portraits of Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon and Red Wings great Ted Lindsay


Harris has been producing superb, highly sought sports and corporate portraits and landscapes for 25 years, his paintings commissioned and collected around the world. He does work for the NHL, NHL Players' Association, PGA, LPGA, CFL and many sports agencies. For almost a decade he has painted the official portrait of the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award, which is presented annually to the League's most valuable player as voted by the players themselves.

Now Harris is painting, in many ways, the history of the NHL. One by one he is producing the portraits of the greatest men ever to play the game after the NHL called him last September to ask him to take on this massive project.

It's something Harris likely didn't consider during third grade art class at Lakefield Elementary School, about 90 miles northeast of Toronto, when he pencil-sketched his favorite player, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito.

"Tony's hockey card was the only one I could find with the name Tony on it," Harris said, having looked long and hard for a namesake. "Because of Tony I basically became a goalie. I drew goalies constantly, all day long.

"Tony was my guy. I've never painted him. The closest I've come was doing a small boy playing ball hockey wearing a Tony Esposito jersey, a watercolor, maybe six by six inches, which I gave to [Blackhawks coach and friend] Joel Quenneville. But that's it. I've never done a full painting."

Video: Tony Harris commissioned to paint NHL's 100 greatest

That might or might not yet happen. Harris is 11 paintings into the list of 33 players the NHL announced New Year's Day, men who principally played during the League's first half-century between its founding in 1917 and 1966. If Esposito is on the list of players who will be unveiled during "The NHL 100" at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, when 67 men who played principally between 1967 and 2017 will be added to the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, Harris doesn't know.

The project obviously is a monstrous amount of work, one that has had Harris turn down other commissions for most of 2017.

"My goal is to really go as hard as I can so that come next hockey season I'll be available for portraits and upcoming milestone games that teams will want to celebrate," said Harris, who figures he has done work for about one-third of the League's 31 teams. "Not that I'd get all the jobs I'd like, but I enjoy doing them and my name is in there. Hopefully that will continue."

Harris said he's working in no particular order on the players already named to the 100 Greatest NHL Players list. His goal is to complete two or three paintings per week.

First comes his search through photo archives to find the image he believes best represents the legend he will paint. He will narrow the photos down to a small handful, forwarding them to the NHL office in Toronto. Once he and the League have agreed on the final image, he can begin work on the painting, each one taking him an average of 20-25 hours.

The NHL, starting Monday, will add two of his paintings to its website each week. Ideally, Harris always will have a few paintings finished and waiting to be paired with another, easing the pressure he figures will increase as spring moves into summer and toward fall.

High-quality giclee prints will be given to each player or his family, along with something truly special: A large, limited-edition print that will be given to all 100. Each print will be different in that each player's own enlarged image will anchor a collage of the entire group.

"I wake up every morning, go to my studio and I think, 'As much as this is taking up my time, this is a really cool job,'" Harris said. "I'm pleased to be doing it. The amount of work has sunk in, but I don't think the scope of the assignment has just yet."

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