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Best Seat In The House

Wednesday, 14.02.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
Vancouver Canucks
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Best Seat In The House

By Nancy Henderson
FEB.14.07

As fans can attest, there are wonderful locations to watch the game throughout GM Place.

But for sheer heart pounding thrill, the ideal place to be is sandwiched between the two players' benches, inside what is appropriately nicknamed the 'Suicide Box'.

This is no spot for a night of relaxed viewing with beer and nachos. The Suicide Box has just enough room for two photographers or television camera operators to stand side by side, shooting the action on the ice. Two more photographers or technicians can fit in behind.

A small set of stairs creates a platform to improve the view. To the right is a pane of glass separating the box from the visitor's bench. To the left, nothing stands between you and the Canucks. In front of you is clear, open ice. The only way to get closer to the action would be to actually coach or play for the team.

It is from this stellar location that photographer Jeff Vinnick works nightly, taking the photos that capture the defining moments of the game: the glorious saves, the spectacular goals, the wild scrambles, the emotions of the players and the crowd.

Vinnick has been photographing the team for a decade, since "the year Mark Messier came here". He grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, playing hockey like any good prairie boy. He hated the Montreal Canadiens, loved the Boston Bruins and, despite not playing the position himself, idolized Bruins Hall of Fame goalie Gerry Cheevers.

Vinnick takes between 300 and 350 photos a night. On a good night, he has 10 pictures he's happy with, saying "if you add that up over the season and you have a portfolio of 40 really nice pictures, that's pretty good". He works from a number of different locations around the rink, searching for the perfect vantage point. There is a camera platform at the bottom of section 109, which sits level with the playing surface, and where the moisture seeps through and forms an icy footrest. There is another platform high up in the rafters, the perfect spot to photograph the upturned faces of the players as they analyze or agonize over the instant replay.

There is a small window, cut into the boards at ice level behind the net, an awkward spot for a photographer to set up his equipment, but which offers a fabulous, wide angle view of the goalie.

As Vinnick tells it "there's a nice shot I got this year of Luongo that I'm really happy with. He's coming back and the puck's coming right at us. I said 'there's nothing, there's nothing and then BANG there it is'. A lot of people have said to me 'that's a great shot of Luongo - how did you get it?' They have no idea that I'm laying on a hockey rink floor."

But the hot spot to be is right there between the benches. "The Suicide Box is extremely sensual", says Vinnick. "Every sense is going when you're in there. The sound of the game is what really stays with you. You can hear everything - the sound of the skates grinding on the ice and the players on the bench. You can smell the game. And you see everything."

But as the name suggests, there is a significant element of danger to working in an area that offers no protection from flying pucks, sticks or bodies.

"There's a rule in there and I always make sure guys that haven't shot in there before know," explains Vinnick. "Always watch the puck!"

Of course, during the game the emotions are running high and players are under pressure to perform and are concentrating on the game. Vinnick has his share of war stories to tell.

"It's not really a place where a puck will hit you. I've been grazed with a puck a couple of times. Typically the big threat isn't pucks, it's players' sticks. The most I've ever been hurt was from Bertuzzi. He missed a goal, came to the bench and slammed his stick against the boards and hit me in the arm. It really, really hurt. I thought he broke my arm. But it was ok."

What about incidents with opposition players? The photographer relates a tale from the days when tough-guy Donald Brashear wore a Canucks uniform.

"We were playing the Leafs. Tie Domi was there and it was one of those nights when they were just going at it all night long. It was late in the third period, I think we were beating the Leafs, and Domi got really frustrated. I was shooting the game and all of a sudden I was thrown forward into the boards". Thinking a colleague had pushed him, Vinnick turned around to let his friend have it. Instead, he was surprised to see "Brashear was climbing into the Suicide Box, crawling across, going after Domi".

As the bench is within earshot, Vinnick can overhear the conversations, and has had the opportunity to listen to two coaches with very different styles.

"Crawford was always chirping. The one thing we missed him saying was 'too many men!' When they (Los Angeles Kings) were here, there was one instance when the Canucks had too many guys on the ice and you could hear Crawford saying 'too many men!' The other cameraman and I both laughed."

Alain Vigneault takes a different approach.

"He yells, he'll say things but it's more positive reinforcement."

Who are the chattiest Canucks players?

"We don't have an Avery on our team. Nazzy says stuff to the refs. Trevor talks a lot on the bench. He's very vocal. He talks to the refs a lot. Trevor's probably the guy who's most into the game. Burr and Kes are two guys that will always go by the other bench and say stuff and get the guys going."

Vinnick has treasures among his photographs.

"One of my favourites of all time was Gretzky punching Dana Murzyn - connecting square in the face. It was the last game of the season before the playoffs and I thought it was just hilarious".

"There's one from the playoffs a few years ago. We were playing Minnesota and scored with like half a second left. And Cooke and Linden are right on top, screaming and you can see the clock in behind, the puck's in the middle of the frame and Fernandez, the goalie, is sitting right there. That's one of those ones I'm proud of".

Still, the perfect photo is elusive.

"I don't have that one Bobby Orr flying through the air picture. Every photographer dreams of getting that. It may come some day, it may not. I don't worry about it too much. Every night is a new night, a new game, and I just try to get a really good shot."

So, Jeff Vinnick will continue trying to capture that one great photo, dodging danger in the Suicide Box.