Hockey’s image improved in the 1980s, after the Olympic Miracle On Ice in 1980 and the superstardom of Wayne Gretzki. There have been some low points since then—a labor dispute and a period of astonishingly low television ratings—but more recently some wise rule changes and hi-def television have made the game more exciting to watch. And while the fights continue to break out on the ice regularly, the sport has scored with its Winter Classic game, played outdoors on New Years Day. (The game is featured now on HBO’s behind-the-scenes documentary series 24/7.) Players are better groomed than in the ’70s (who isn’t?) and more media-savvy. The National Hockey League certainly does not enjoy the cultural clout of the National Football League, but there are signs—and old-school purists who prefer the bullies and brawlers of yesteryear shudder at the thought—that hockey is becoming a glamour sport.
One sign is the yearbook of a storied NHL franchise, the New York Rangers. Typically, these kinds of keepsake sports programs are afterthoughts produced quickly and cheaply, featuring uninspiring photos of players on that season’s roster—in hockey, the visual cliché is the static shot of a skater posed facing the camera, his stick held stiffly in position for a wrist shot at the camera. (Goalies get a different treatment: They’re usually shot in front of a net, helmetless but in full pads, knees bent, waiting for a shot that will never come.) By comparison, the player portraits in the Rangers’ yearbook look like they were shot for a men’s fashion magazine. That’s because in recent seasons the pictures have been taken by Eccles, one of the country’s top celebrity photographers.
“It makes a lot of sense, for the sport now and for the Rangers organization in particular,” says Eccles, who shoots regularly for magazines like Time and New York. (Among the celebs he has shot: Anthony Hopkins, Tina Fey, Johnny Depp, and Sandra Bullock.) “This is a hockey team that plays in Madison Square Garden on Broadway in New York,” he says. “The glamour is appropriate.”
Since he began shooting for the Ranger yearbook in 2000, Eccles has photographed a generation of NHL stars that have played for club—from Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr to current captain Ryan Callahan and superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist—in an array of elaborate setups. One year he stood them sheets of stainless steel. Another year, he strapped on a helmet and had players shoot pucks over his head. He’s even photographed them wearing tuxedos. “That one was kind of a stretch,” says Eccles. “The tuxedos were the club’s idea, not mine. Hockey players in tuxedos?”
It’s a labor of love for a kid who grew up in Toronto playing youth hockey. (Love, plus season tickets to the Garden.) “I put on skates for the first time when I was three or four,” says Eccles. “They were the double-bladed kind—you sort of walked around the ice on them.” By the time he was in fifth grade, Eccles was playing for his school team in a championship game at Toronto’s old Maple Leaf Gardens, then home ice for the city’s professional team. “In Toronto, where hockey is nearly a religion, that was a big deal,” he says. “They would let all the kids out of school for the day, and they could attend if they wanted. So there I was playing in front of 15,000 screaming kids, sitting on the bench where my glorious Toronto Maple Leaf hockey heroes sat–and spat. We were all kind of fascinated with how much spit was all around the bench.” One year he played for a youth all-star team, where he went up against a kid from Brantford, Canada named Wayne Gretzki.Eccles’s family later moved to Hawaii, where the game of hockey is not played, and his career on ice was over. He went on to attend art school, later becoming an assistant for Annie Leibovitz and eventually launching his own photographic career. “I didn’t pay attention to hockey for 23 years,” he says. Then at age 40 he began playing in an adult ice hockey league at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, at a rink just downstairs from the facility’s giant photo studio. In one game he found himself facing off against another hockey-loving photographer, William Wegman. “He’s a chippy player,” says Eccles. “I respect him so much as a photographer, and he’s a bit older, so I didn’t really want to get into it with him. So we were kind of chopping and shoving one another around.”
In 2000 he got an assignment from ESPN The Magazine to photograph hockey star Theo Fleury, who had just been acquired by the Rangers. “I went to the team’s practice facility with my agent, who was also a hockey fan,” says Eccles. “While I was shooting Theo, my agent was talking with the club’s public relations guy, and afterward he came over and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got some pretty exciting news. They do this yearbook and they need a photographer to take the pictures of the players for it.” As it turned out, Fleury, nearing the end of his career, was a bust for the Rangers, but the photographic legacy he left behind was significant.
HOW I GOT THE PICTURE
Eccles typically shoots the yearbook pictures in late October, when the hockey season is well underway and rosters have been set. That means he has to schedule time between team practices and games. Usually he gets just half a day for the entire shoot, which means about five minutes with each players. “And in that five minutes I shoot them in two setups,” he says.
The scariest shoot, by far, was the year he lay at center ice with a medium-format camera while the players shot pucks over his head. “What was fun was capturing the torque on the sticks as the players were taking slap shots,” says Eccles. “It was also terrifying. I mean, I had Petr Nedved was ripping shots over my head. The players would wind up and take a shot and I would push the shutter button and close my eyes.”
Last year, when the club celebrated its 85th anniversary, Eccles simplified with brilliant results. He shot two portfolios, one in which the players wore special “throwback” jerseys and another with the jerseys taken off to reveal the protective gear underneath. “It was spectacular to see their body armor—it’s all very Transformers looking,” he says.For those shots, Eccles posed the players against a plexiglass backdrop covered with mat spray. The plexiglass was illuminated from behind with blue-gelled light, and the front was sprayed with water to give it an icy look. A gridded strobe behind Eccles added soft light to the players’ faces. Eccles shot with a Phase One 645DF digital camera system. To make the players look authentically sweaty, Eccles sprayed their faces with water. “Luckily they agreed,” says Eccles. “I started with Chris Drury, the team captain at the time. Once he said yes, everybody else knew they had to.”
There are some things even the best photographer armed with illusionist’s tricks can’t fake, however. The players look tough in the pictures—even a little angry—and that’s because they were. “It was early in the season, and after a good start the Rangers had gone through a terrible spiral and lost about eight in a row,” says Eccles. “Everybody was hurt. They were all in a miserable mood. Their coach was furious. It was a dark day to be trying to take pictures of these guys.” But bad weather, as the saying goes, often makes for good pictures.