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Sports This Week: Hockey and cartoons meet in fantastic new book

You can pick this book up, spend five-minutes flipping through its 390 pages and get something out of it.

YORKTON - There are books which are just wonderful to hold in your hands and flip through the pages.

Picturing the Game: An Illustrated Story of Hockey by Don Weekes is one of those books.

The book is described as “hockey’s history, seen through the lens of graphic satire and commentary by some of Canada’s most prominent cartoonists and illustrators,” on the publisher’s (McGill-Queen's University Press) website.

It is the illustrations included here that make the book the intriguing joy it is.

You can pick this book up, spend five-minutes flipping through its 390 pages and get something out of it, or you can immerse yourself in those pages and spend an afternoon looking through it.

“Hockey has a curious connection to editorial cartooning and sports illustration, one as old and storied as the game itself. Many writers and photographers have told the story of game play, but never from such an original, unvarnished perspective as the cartoonist’s.

“Picturing the Game transports fans into the mischievous world of caricature through the rough drafts of hockey history by Bruce MacKinnon, Aislin, Serge Chapleau, Susan Dewar, Brian Gable, and many other talented artists. They make us laugh by telling the truth and - perhaps - make us a little wiser about what we already suspect of the fools running the show,” relates the publisher page.

It is a wonderful book gathered by, and connected through his writing by Don Weekes. It is a book that tells the reader the author was engrossed by the production of the book.

“This was a passion for me . . . It was fun, and also challenging,” Weekes told Yorkton This Week. “I spent several years on it.”

The challenge was quite obviously twofold. To begin with gathering all the cartoons from publications across the country some ranging back decades had to be a daunting task. In the end Weekes said he had literally thousands – 7000 roughly -- of images, which meant the related effort of choosing which to include, and which to file – maybe for a second book?

“I’m not going to say there’s a second book there,” said Weekes, but he admitted the material certainly exists to fill a second volume.

In the end Weekes settled on 460 pieces for the book, connected by some 78,000 words of text, enough “to really cover the subject well.”

What is cool from the perspective of a long-time Yorkton Journalist is a couple of pieces with a local connection.

“The NHL's pre-expansion era is where I base most of my work,” said Sean Thompson. “What is particularly satisfying is how the stories align with my approach to presenting subjects in original and unexpected ways. The painting of Rocket Richard depicts the Rocket posed against a fiery glow from the streets of Montreal. There is a riot going on, and his expression is hard to read; perhaps a hint of a sly smile beneath his iconic glare.” 1996,” notes the book.

“Growing up is small-town Saskatchewan, where hockey was everything, I immersed myself in artistic pursuits. Later, after studying art on the West Coast, I found it again. I became engrossed in hockey history. And learned to skate, play pick-up hockey, and more importantly, came to the realization that the game is as much a cultural force in the North as the group of Seven and Anne Murray. Hockey has a place in art.” -- Sean Thompson, 1996.”

Thompson actually had an exhibition of his hockey art at the Godfrey Dean Gallery in Yorkton years ago.

While the subject was fresh, Weekes said “it is not an academic book.

“I wrote this for the hockey fan.”

For a Saskatchewan hockey fan the inclusion of anything Gordie Howe is a bonus.

“Six-time scoring champion Gordie Howe, who used his stick like a scythe to mow down goalie save percentages and wily opponents, as Aislin depicted, wouldn't have been that dominant point producer without administering some payback. In a distinguished five-decade career, Howe didn't fight much – not after famously neutralizing Lou Fontinato in February 1959,” writes Weekes.

“After fending off initial swings from Fontinato, Howe grabbed the Rangers defenceman's sweater by the collar and repeatedly belted rights to his face. “Never in my life had I heard anything like it, except maybe the sound of somebody chopping wood,” referee Frank Udvari recalled. “Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie's breathing out of his cheekbone.” Fontinato's face was hammered into a gory pulp. Surgeons did their best to reconstruct it, but nothing could repair his reputation. Fontinato never skated with that same swagger again.”

These are the sort of short tales woven into the book that make it so much fun to read.

Or, a bit about the female Gordie Howe.

“It didn't slow Hayley Wickenheiser, who said, “Why not?” to men's pro play,” writes Weekes.

“Cast in the same athletic mold as Manon Rhéaume, and faced with the same limited opportunities to earn a living playing hockey, Wickenheiser won every competition open to women before making history in 2003. She scored a goal with Kirkkonummen Salamat, a Division 2 men's pro club in Finland. Malcolm Mayes paid tribute by cartooning that common childhood tease: “You skate like a girl.”

“The challenge was enormous for Wickenheiser, but not unfamiliar. Like many young players, she played on boys' teams into her teen years. At her peak, Wickenheiser was Canada's most menacing finisher, and a multiple winner at the IIHF Worlds and in Olympic action. She set numerous Olympic scoring records, and was named Olympic MVP in 2002 and 2006.”

Then there was the even more basic challenge “trying to combine two subjects,” said Weekes, illustrations as a medium with the common thread of hockey.

“It hadn’t been done before. . . This is a part of sports journalism that needs to be told,” said Weekes, who added he came to recognize “. . . a symbiotic relationship between the two.”

He would be pioneering the research.

“I knew hockey history fairly well, or thought I did,” he said, adding that “about half way through my research” he realized he was discovering cartoons about aspects of hockey “I knew nothing about. . .

“It broadened my view of hockey tremendously.”

Weekes said it was interesting to discover the works or cartoonist in the earliest days of the sport were the only visual connection to hockey, coming before photographs appearing in newspapers.

“Cartoons defined moments in time in Canada’s history,” said Weekes. “. . . They were the games first highlight reel packages.”

And even today the art can portray the deepest emotions of a sport and a nation.

“In his home province of Nova Scotia, Bruce MacKinnon has a special Maritime affinity for small-town life. “You have a worldwide audience potentially ... but you are really drawing for your next door neighbours,” said MacKinnon on keeping things relatable to everyone. “You know, they'd rather know something that's happening in their backyard. Stuff that affects them,” writes Weekes.

“MacKinnon's best-known hockey cartoon came in 2018, when he captured Canada's grief in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos' fatal bus crash. For Canadians, Humboldt is a familiar story of winter and family, and of driving on long, dark stretches of highway to be together. As Connor McDavid said, “Everyone has been on that bus.”

“We all know a Humboldt.”

“It captured Canada’s grief at that time,” said Weekes in his YTW interview.