The Art of Hockey

By Stephen Dale on April 10, 2017

Saul Miller, The Rocket Scores, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 97 x 128 x 3.5 cm. Canadian Museum of History

It’s fitting that ice hockey — which occupies considerable space within Canada’s national imagination — should be the subject of a large and thematically diverse exhibition. Simply titled Hockey, the show, now on view at the Canadian Museum of History (CMH), strives to connect with spectators in perhaps as many ways as the game itself threads through the national narrative.

Hockey unravels its stories across an impressive stretch of real estate: some 7,000 square feet, divided into eight distinct modules. It’s a structure that allows the game to be observed through a variety of lenses, says CMH Curator of Sport and Leisure Jenny Ellison, who co-curated the exhibition along with CMH historian Jennifer Anderson.

As Ellison told NGC Magazine, “We are trying to capture the different ways that people encounter hockey, and to answer the question of why hockey seems to matter on a cultural level.”

In each of the eight zones, visitors approach the game from a different angle, exploring various facets of Canada’s national winter sport. Structured loosely as an arena, the exhibition examines hockey from the perspective of fans, from behind the scenes in locker rooms and media suites, or with a focus on the science that underlies the game. Among the lore-laden artifacts populating the journey are an early iteration of the Stanley Cup, a uniform worn by pioneering women’s hockey player Hilda Ranscombe, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, and Jacques Plante’s “pretzel” goalie mask, among many others.

The experience culminates in an art-based zone that probes how hockey has both influenced, and been reflected within, the cultural sphere. The game that poet Al Purdy described in verse as “this combination of ballet and murder” has been amply represented in films, books, paintings, photographs and folkloric artifacts. A generous sampling of these various forms of artistic expression has been included in Hockey.

“Art allows us to ask some of the more challenging questions and get at some of the tensions in hockey,” says Ellison. “And in some cases, it allows for a kind of cheekiness that you might not expect.”

Robert Bozak, Tim Horton & Donut, 1974, enamel on plywood, 62 x 54.8 x 1 cm. Collection of Museum London, Gift of Ms. Dawn Johnston, London, Ontario, 1993

An example of the latter is Ontario artist Robert Bozak’s whimsical painting Tim Horton & Donut, which depicts the hockey player emerging from the centre of the quintessential Canadian pastry. For Ellison, the work provides a sly commentary on “the ubiquity of Tim Hortons as a part of Canadiana. It’s a reminder of this weird Canadian thing where we routinely have hockey and doughnuts in the same sentence.”

A similar sense of playfulness animates both Saul Miller’s The Rocket Scores (in which Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice Richard bests the arch-enemy Toronto Maple Leafs), and Diana Thorneycroft’s Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Winter on the Don), which transforms a tranquil A.J. Casson landscape into a venue for a game of celebrity shinny.

Providing further commentary on the place of hockey in the broader culture is an Andy Warhol print of Wayne Gretzky, from same series as one in the NGC national collection. Created by Warhol in the 1980s, towards the end of his life, it depicts Gretzky as an international icon of glamour, far removed from the traditional images of hockey players on trading cards.

Other works provide more pointed social commentary. “Sport is a really good vehicle for talking about complicated social issues, because people expect sports to be fair,” says Ellison. “When people come to sport, we’re supposed to arrive on a level playing field. But sometimes we are reminded that the participants are not on an equal footing.”

Jim Logan, National Pastimes - Father Image I, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 52.8 x 63.5 cm. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

In one of seven paintings in his series National Pastimes, for example, Jim Logan’s depiction of a priest, standing ominously above three Indigenous boys in hockey jerseys, chillingly alludes to the horrors of the residential school system and compels the viewer to consider one of the darkest episodes in Canadian history. It sets a mood that stunningly contrasts with the sheer joy of Clifford Maracle’s The Hockey Player, whose lone Indigenous subject moves unfettered, with speed and power, across the ice.

There are clear social, political subtexts in other images. In singer-photographer Bryan Adams’ portrait of Cassie Campbell, for example, the hockey star is wearing her helmet and facemask. “When female athletes are photographed, we tend not to see them in their gear; especially in advertising, we see them in their day wear,” Ellison says. Including the gear is significant, since it represents Campbell as an athlete, first and foremost, rather than as a woman.

Hoarding Wall
, Vancouver, B.C. June 15, 2011, acrylic spraypaint and marker on plywood, 244 x 123 cm. Museum of Vancouver

The curator is also taken with an unconventional, found work: a large piece of plywood hoarding covered in graffiti that now has a permanent home at the Museum of Vancouver. Put up to protect property in the wake of the 2011 Vancouver hockey riot, it took on the impromptu role of facilitating dialogue about the riot among passers-by.

“It’s a really beautiful piece of graffiti,” Ellison says. “And it’s super-cool to see people having a conversation this way.”

Ultimately, Ellison would like to see this exhibition stimulate similar public debate: “Since it touches on so many things, hockey is a really good medium for talking about some complicated social issues,” she says. Hockey also provides, as this exhibition illustrates, some fertile ground for artists.

Hockey is on view until October 9, 2017 at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

By Stephen Dale| April 10, 2017
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Stephen Dale

Stephen Dale

Ottawa writer Stephen Dale's latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books, 2014).

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Copyright National Gallery of Canada 2017