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.”
Credit Tony Harris
Since the N.H.L. announced the art project in February, two new paintings have been posted on N.H.L.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.
The son of an English teacher, Harris grew up on campus at Lakefield College School, a private boarding school, before he started as a student there in ninth grade.
His art teacher was Richard Hayman, who, when he was not commanding the school’s busy art room, could be found ranging soccer fields and cricket pitches.
“To this day I’ve never taken an art lesson from anybody other than Richard,” Harris said. “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.”
Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
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 of 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 most 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 defenseman fending off Ovechkin, Crosby and Gretzky.
Phillips, who retired in 2016, 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.”
Credit Tony Harris
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 its 2010 and 2013 championships. 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 N.H.L.’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 savor.
Out of the blue he got a call from Esposito, who is among the 100. 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.”
Last week, 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.’ ”