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Dave Elston, Canada’s NHL cartoonist, ‘was a gentleman in a business’ for jerks

Dave Elston is a semi-retired artist who lives in Calgary with his wife, Kaida, their cat, Annie, and their 26-year-old horse, Baby, whose residence in a nearby stable prompts Elston to describe it affectionately as: “The world’s most expensive lawn ornament.”

A wall in the basement of their home illustrates how much further his reach once extended, and not just to a stable across town, but across North America. For most of his career, Elston was commonly known as the only full-time editorial sports cartoonist in Canada, and he has a galaxy of autographs and framed keepsakes on display from the very same NHL personalities he was once paid to skewer.

His work appeared in Canadian newspapers, as well as The Hockey News and, for a while, as animated shorts on “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts. He was a two-time art-school dropout whose ability to tell a story in a single frame still makes his work instantly recognizable to readers of a certain age.

“He’s a brilliant guy,” said NHL executive Brian Burke.

“Wonderful,” said retired forward Tim Hunter.

“He should be an Order of Canada guy,” said TSN host Jay Onrait.

Elston, now 63, enrolled in what was then called the Alberta College of Art with dreams of becoming a commercial artist. He quickly felt out of place. Work judged to contain cartoonish imagery was panned, rather than praised. And besides that, he also loved sports.

In 1980, he reached out to his former high school football coach, who was an editor at the Calgary Sun, which had just recently launched. (Elston said he is 5-foot-2, and when he was a running back someone nicknamed him “The Galloping Fire Hydrant.”)

The paper gave him $25 per cartoon.

Within a few years, Elston wanted to expand his reach by syndicating his work across Canada. I have sent packets of his cartoons from him to small papers across the country. He had a packet left after the mailing spree, and on a lark he decided to send it to The Hockey News, in Toronto.

Bob McKenzie was the editor-in-chief. He was still only a couple of years into the job when the packet landed on his desk. He wanted to separate the publication from the notion it was the editorial arm of the NHL — Ken McKenzie (no relation) founded the paper in 1947 while working at the league — and felt an editorial cartoonist would help that cause.

He hired Elston, and he gave him editorial freedom.

“He was a giant in terms of the impact that he had at The Hockey News,” said McKenzie, who is now a semi-retired NHL insider for TSN.

An unpublished Dave Elston cartoon of Connor McDavid. (Courtesy of Dave Elston)

His favorite Elston cartoon involved Wayne Gretzky and a coach who badly misjudged his own influence behind the bench. Robbie Ftorek was coach of the Los Angeles Kings in the late 1980s, and he reduced Gretzky’s playing time, going so far as to bench The Great One for part of a game in November 1988.

McKenzie can still visualize the cartoon. Ftorek was drawn into a frame as one of the Three Wise Men, arguing as he peered into the manger: “I dunno, he looks just like another baby to me.”

“It was absolutely fantastic,” said McKenzie. “It was one of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen.”

Hunter, the long-time NHL forward, was also a frequent muse. Now 61, I have acknowledged his “famous nose” of him made him an easy mark. But it was also the star of his favorite Elston cartoon about him.

He was playing for the Canucks that season. In the frame, the Vancouver trainer is looking into a box of Breathe Right nasal strips, which some players used because they believed it boosted their performance on the ice. The trainer notices the fresh box is empty and asked who snatched all the bandages.

“I’ve got about 10 on my nose, and he’s holding an empty box,” Hunter said with a laugh. “I mean, that’s just classic.”

A few years later, as Hunter was wrapping his NHL playing career with the San Jose Sharks, Elston had an animated short appear on “Hockey Night in Canada” early in the season. With theme music from the film “Jaws” playing in the background, the cartoon showed what appeared to be a shark’s fin swimming across a pool toward the Stanley Cup.

“This thing hits the Stanley Cup,” said Hunter. “And up pops me: I was swimming on my back.”

“He does brilliant work, and he’s not mean,” said Burke, who is now president of hockey operations with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Burke said he sent Elston a hand-written note of appreciation after seeing a cartoon in 1989, following a hard-fought playoff series between Vancouver and Calgary. The Flames advanced after an overtime goal in Game 7 — eventually winning the Stanley Cup — but Elston’s frame showed how both teams were worn down and beaten up.

It was a sign of respect to the Canucks, with whom Burke was working.

“He would make fun of somebody, but he would do it in a way that you couldn’t stay mad at him,” said Burke. “He was truly a gentleman in a business where you had to be a little bit of a jerk.”

Burke is also now a co-star of his own cartoon series. With host Jeff Marek, he appears in the Sportsnet animated shorts “Hey Burkie,” which are available online. (Neels Britz is the artist behind the series, with Amil Delic and Jason Harding serving as the creative leads.)

“I can ramble in my stories,” said Burke. “I can explain things. Elston had one shot.”

“It was almost like an alternative comic, but in a mainstream publication,” said Onrait, the TSN anchor. “You could n’t pass one of his comics by him without stopping and paying attention to it because of that unique style.”

Onrait has a personalized Elston cartoon framed in his office. He said it was a gift arranged by his wife from him. It shows a man pushing a TSN-branded baby carriage under the text: “The Onrait baby says his first word about him.”

The speech bubble coming from the carriage is a classic Onrait exclamation in bold letters: “Bobrovsky!!”

Onrait grew up in Edmonton during the height of the “Battle of Alberta,” when the Oilers and Flames would seem to meet every spring to decide which team would advance to win the Stanley Cup. Elston, he said, was a major component of that It was in Calgary.

“A very important artist in the history of that city,” he said. “I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I don’t think I’m overstating it. I truly believe that he was not just a great artist, but also a chronicler of that time — especially that time in the ’80s, when the teams were so good.”

If an NHL player reached out to ask for a print of his work, Elston said he would usually send two copies in the mail: One for the player, and one for the player to autograph and send back. Most of his subjects from him, he said, seemed to get the joke.

Most of them, he said, but not all.

“I’ve had the odd one where somebody will come up to me and go: ‘Oh, you did a cartoon of me back when I was playing football for the Stampeders,’” he said. “Then I’ll go: ‘Oh yeah?’ And they’ll say, ‘I didn’t like it.’”

He paused to laugh: “I’m kind of like, ‘OK, do you hit me now?’”

In 1991, Flames forward Doug Gilmour landed in an Elston cartoon after he was awarded $750,000 in salary arbitration. It was just before the December holidays and, according to the Vancouver Province, the cartoon showed Gilmour asking for charity with a sign: “Young couple, one child, father making a lousy $750,000.”

Gilmour was reportedly unhappy with his depiction, but he never reached out to the artist.

“His wife did,” Elston said. “She was not happy. I’m going to leave it at that.”

He said he still draws every now and again, mostly for his own amusement. He said he is open to new projects, but he is otherwise settling into retired life. His wife of him, Kaida, is also retired.

“I’m grateful that I kind of hit that sweet spot where I managed to make a career out of it, and got out of it in time with enough to hopefully retire on,” he said, stopping to laugh again. “Oh, I guess, I’ll find out.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Dave Elston)


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