October 10, 2011
Leafs' photographer has seen it all — except a Cup
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Of all the Maple Leaf action shots, team photos and head ’n’ shoulder hockey cards Graig Abel has snapped, only one subject ever howled at him about an awkward pose.
That was because his rear end and genitalia were pressed against the ice during the long session at Maple Leaf Gardens. But when big boss Harold Ballard decreed his dog must be included in the club pic, well, Abel didn’t want to lose a good job.
Being steady at the camera with all sorts of strange subjects and settings has kept Abel as the team’s official photographer for 35 years and counting.
“Usually the formal team pictures go smoothly, because the players have been doing it since they were kids,” Abel said. “They smile and sit still. But one year in (the late 1980s) they were all arranged in rows waiting for Harold and he walks out with T.C. Puck (his big Flanders Bouvier). T.C. was fine to stay put for a minute, but they’d really cleaned and scraped the ice for me and it wasn’t long before he started barking loud about having to sit in the cold. Hey, so would I.
“Harold’s partner, Yolanda, was shouting at the workers to hold the dog and find some carpet. The players were all trying not to laugh and I’m looking through the viewer thinking ‘this is the goofiest picture I’ve ever taken.’ ”
Abel has only missed “a handful” of home games since 1977, taking up game night position with his trusty wooden stool in the northwest corner of the Gardens and, after 1999, around the Zamboni entrance of the ACC.
But his streak nearly came to a premature end during one of Wayne Gretzky’s early visits to Carlton St.
“All the guys went out early to shoot Gretzky in warmup because he was a big deal,” Abel said. “So there I was in a nice white shirt and jacket that we wore at the time. I was watching Gretzky, but not one of the Oilers who was firing pucks to test the glass.”
With no safety netting at the time, a puck cleared the rim and caught Abel right between the eyes.
“Blood everywhere, I couldn’t see,” he recalled with a chuckle. “They took me to the Gardens clinic and who is sitting in there but Harold. He growled, ‘How in hell did ya get hurt, the game ain’t started.’
“I couldn’t tell him I was getting pictures of the other team, so I just said it was an accident. He offered to have one of the boys run me to hospital, but I just wanted to get back out there.
“Then I forgot about this big bandage around my eye and when I pulled the camera up to shoot again, I nearly knocked myself out.”
Abel stayed on the good side of the erratic Ballard, who had given final approval to his hiring in 1977. But Abel had silver halides in his DNA, the grandson of Charles (Chas) Abel, who came to Canada from England in 1906. After starting in the fledgling phonograph recording industry, Abel had switched to photo-finishing and operated a chain of labs across Canada.
When the newly built Gardiner Expressway forced a move from their Fleet St. store, Graig’s father Chas set up at Sherbourne and Lakeshore with his son, a forward for the Streetsville Derbys who had begun experimenting with sports photography.
“I’d messed around because we had the cameras lying around the store,” Graig said. “I wasn’t very good at first, but I worked at it. Thankfully, I had a lot of supplies to experiment with.”
A chance encounter with a customer who brought in rolls of Leaf film changed Abel’s career path.
“He took pictures at the games for albums which sold at their concession stands. He accepted my offer to help him, but soon after he just disappeared.”
So in the peculiar way the Gardens worked, Abel “just showed up and started shooting,” leaving it to Hot Stove Club manager Bill Cluff to square it with Ballard.
When Ballard died in 1990, the huge picture used when he lay in state in the Gardens was one Abel took in the owner’s famous bunker.
Abel was on call at the Hot Stove when it was commandeered for Leafs training camp in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Abel recalls fitness wasn’t a priority then.
“I was taking player head shots and made the mistake of leaving my cigarettes on the table. I left the room, came back and there’s a bunch of players, Al Iafrate, Chris Kotsopoulos, puffing away — with team officials all over the place. Al was beautiful. He came back later and asked, “Did I leave my urine sample here?
“There was also this big farm boy draft pick from Western Canada. Can’t recall his name, but he had really long hair and had lost all his teeth. He sits down for his picture and I had to say, ‘Shouldn’t you put your teeth in?’ He said, ‘Naw, my Mom will love it.’ ”
Among Abel’s favourite images is an early action shot of Ron Ellis in ’77, but it would be the team picture that would test his mettle.
“The joke was that everyone who had the job before me had been fired or left. They’d had a guy named Bob Shaver from Buffalo and Sid Smith, the ex-captain, but they hadn’t lasted. I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m doing yet, but I’m now one of the longest-serving people with the team.”
Toronto fans’ insatiable appetite for the Leafs kept Abel firmly planted at rinkside with colleagues from the Sun, Star and Globe. In pre-Internet days, postcards of every player were immensely popular, as were the team calendars. There were also lucrative freelance opportunities with hockey cards and sticker books.
With the Gardens busy all year, Abel was also recruited to shoot bands such as The Who, Queen and Van Halen.
And one night came Abel’s chance to sing O Canada.
“This nice lady from police services was doing the anthem and one of my jobs was to be at centre and take an 8 X 10 of the singer as a souvenir. She started stumbling over the words, stopped and then stumbled again. I’m about 15 feet away, she’s looking right at me as if to say ‘Can’t you help me?’ But all I can see are the players behind her, laughing so much they’re falling off the bench.
“Then she took off and locked herself in the directors’ lounge. I felt bad, but if I’d have sung, I’d have cleared the whole Gardens.”
The team’s move to Bay and Lakeshore meant changes for Abel, who found the thicker glass harder to shoot through than the Gardens. The safety netting also led to creation of photo knotholes in the corner glass — and enough room for pucks and sticks to wound some of Abel’s friends. But the ACC has also provided Abel new stories.
“After the NHL began shootouts, this carpet suddenly appeared at centre before the first shooter and a TV crew marches out to set up. I’m hesitant to go, wondering if I’m allowed. But my co-worker Brad White waves at me to get out there. I look at the newspaper guys, who are shouting ‘Go! Go!’ So I go, but what a mistake.
“Joe Bowen spots me from the booth and pretends to be upset, telling the listeners, ‘There’s a delay because the Leaf photographer is on the ice.’ I think that was a national game because a team official called from Seattle the next day to complain about me and then the NHL phoned the Leafs.”
Hockey is always big business, but Abel also covers Major League Lacrosse and golf, among other sports. Graig is proud that son Dave is now shooting the Leafs for the Sun as well as helping the family firm, along with Dave’s friend White and long-time associate Dennis Miles.
His company Graig Abel Photography has embraced the digital age and his Leaf and NHL work is part of the giant Getty Images group. The day after games, Abel is at his Mississauga office computer, scrolling through the papers, wire services and all-sports TV websites to see which of his images are chosen. He also finds time to do special projects, such as provide photo evidence to help the NHL, collectors and historians settle disputes.
“A guy bought Doug Gilmour hockey gloves from 1992-93 and wanted a picture of Doug to see if they were legit. Another was looking for a picture of Al Secord wearing an ‘A’, which he only did briefly. I’ve also needed to look up some old Newmarket Saints’ stuff (Leafs’ 1980s farm team), including Jim Ralph with these old brown goal pads.”
The MLSE years have made the team photo more complicated. Several versions are required to get all the company’s executives and Brian Burke’s expanded hockey office and coaching staff in the same frame as the players. But Abel has saved a couple of outtakes, featuring his small staff in the front row as stand-ins for the VIPs.
Of course the team photo he yearns to click the most is the Leafs posing with the Stanley Cup.
“That would be special,” Abel said.