Meet the Winnipeg hockey hero who helped save the Queen

·Columnist
The famous portrait that once hung in the Winnipeg Arena is being restored by local artist Amanda Von Riesen.

WINNIPEG – This is not a hockey bar.

There aren’t any TVs, or jerseys or memorabilia. A blues band plays underneath a neon “Country” sign. A poster on the wall reads, “What Would Neil Young Do?” Hipsters and miscreants dance. Whiskey pours.

A local artist enters, with her hair down and a tattoo of a musical note on her forearm. She pays the $10 cover and grins at the bouncer, who gives her a hug.

This is Amanda Von Riesen, Winnipeg hockey hero.

She is the least likely sports celebrity in this town, and she’s still pretty stunned by what’s happened over the last few months. People have listened in on her conversations at restaurants and even interrupted them to speak with her. At a fair where some of her paintings were being shown, a member of parliament recognized her just because of what he read about her in the news.

“I do want to be known,” she laughs. “But do I want to be known for this or for my own art?”

At this point, she doesn’t have a choice. She is known for this. She is known as the woman who helped save the Queen.

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Von Riesen has plenty of friends in the music community, both here and in Nashville, and late last year she got a call from one of them. Her name was Janice Starodub, and Janice had a friend named Anya, and Anya had this painting.

Von Riesen, who is from here, gets these kinds of calls all the time. She obsesses about paintings – the ones she’s done, the ones others have done, the ones she wants to do. She texts about paintings the way baseball scouts text about pitch counts. (She even painted a portrait of the outside of this bar.) But as Janice kept talking, and telling Von Riesen about this painting, she realized this was not just any painting. This was a famous painting.

Back in 1979, when the WHA crumbled and the Jets moved into the NHL, the Winnipeg Arena had to be expanded to accommodate more fans. That year, the lieutenant governor of Manitoba commissioned a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, which was to be hung in the rafters. It was meant to replace a less flattering portrait in the arena, and it did more than that: it became one of the more iconic parts of hockey.

The portrait was enormous: five by seven metres (15 feet by 22), built on oak panels, and it took 200 hours to complete. Over the years, it became the target of many practice pucks – almost like how punters aim for the huge scoreboard at JerryWorld. It was the largest oil painting of the Queen known to exist at that point, and over the years it grew to be a part of Winnipeg lore. There was Her Majesty, placed between the U.S. and Canadian flags, looking over one of the loudest and zaniest places in sports, smiling regally with curtains in the background, as if she was gazing down from a private box. She was part of home-ice advantage.

“It wasn’t just hockey games, either,” said local historian Christian Cassidy. “A lot of important city events took place in that building.”

Then, in 1996, the Jets were gone, to Arizona. And then, in 1999, the Queen was gone, too.

The famous portrait that once hung in the Winnipeg Arena is at a secret location while Amanda Von Riesen touches it up.
The famous portrait that once hung in the Winnipeg Arena is at a secret location while Amanda Von Riesen touches it up.

For the better part of the next 15 years, the Queen was a nomad. She moved from place to place in Canada, with several interested buyers but no one able to figure out where to put a portrait that size. Finally it ended up in the Camp X Historical Society in Ontario, named after a World War II secret agent training facility. One of the more visible faces in the hockey world had gone dark.

It was Anya Wilson of Camp X who became the first hero in the comeback story. She was the custodian for many years, trying to give the painting a real home. There was even a story about her efforts in the Winnipeg Sun in 2010, and the last line was “Anyone interested in the painting is welcome to call Wilson at 416-977-7704.” Many called. Nobody came through.

Then, late last year, Wilson found Von Riesen through the mutual friend, and then Von Riesen went to a Jets game with one of her clients, a railroad executive named Jamie Boychuk.

Von Riesen told him about the call she got, and Boychuk, who had grown up going to Jets games in the 1980s, blurted out:

“I want to buy it.”

Boychuk did just that, and quickly. “It’s the number one sports memorabilia we have,” he said. “It’s one of a kind.”

He asked Von Riesen to help renovate and clean it. That was extra meaningful, Cassidy said, because it was a local artist who had painted it and another who would restore it.

Von Riesen didn't want to paint over what was already done, glossing over the puck marks and other battle wounds that Her Majesty had suffered. That would be the equivalent of giving the Venus de Milo her arms back.

The Winnipeg artist has been given the task of renovating the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth.
The Winnipeg artist has been given the task of renovating the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

Von Riesen is only working on touching up the frame, the matting, and a few other cosmetic adjustments. She vows she won’t touch the puck marks. The big debate, however, is about the Queen’s lips.

At some point throughout all the moving and storage, the Queen got her lips torn (which is a bit ironic since hockey players always liked to aim pucks for her mouth). Von Riesen still isn’t sure what she will do.

“Should I touch the lips?” she asks. “Jamie and I have been going back and forth.”

Fans come up to her and give advice or simply want to talk. The buzz over the painting is so strong here that she will only say it is in a “secret location’’. Von Riesen insisted she can’t get in to see it without Boychuk letting her into the undisclosed building.

Von Riesen is quite open, however, about where the painting should go next.

“The reason it’s not anywhere yet,” she said, “is because it should be at MTS Centre.”

Boychuk has wanted that from the very beginning. “We’re not doing this to make money,” he said. “We’re doing this to get it back into the arena at no cost. This is something that belongs there. We just want to get it back.”

A CBC poll about the best destination for the painting rung up more than a thousand votes for the MTS Centre, where the Jets play now, and 306 votes for the next most popular option. (“My basement” got 74 votes.)

But there’s a problem.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re interested,” Von Riesen said glumly. Boychuk said, “We haven’t gotten a positive or negative response from them.”

In an email to Yahoo Sports, Jets communications director Scott Brown wrote: “I can tell you there has been no consideration to bringing the old picture to MTS Centre, for aesthetic reasons, as well as practical. It is too big and would not be able to hang in MTS Centre without affecting the vantage point of various sections of our 300 level.”

There aren’t many other obvious options for the Queen. Perhaps the Winnipeg airport, where it could greet sports fans and other travelers like the statue of Franco Harris in the Pittsburgh airport. Cassidy’s idea is to put it in the new rail terminal.

Her Majesty is nearly ready, and the city is certainly ready to see her. Von Riesen told a story of an eavesdropper who recently interrupted a conversation to tell her, “I’m 100 percent certain it should be in there. It needs to be back.”

In a real way, though, it is already back. Part of Von Riesen’s art is finding the real meaning of a painting, the message it sends to those who see it. She doesn’t need to think long to describe the meaning of this work. And it has nothing to do with the monarchy, or even with hockey.

“It’s home,” she said. “People care about home. What is home? It’s real. That painting was lost. Now it’s home. It’s where it belongs.”

A painting done by the artist outside the High & Lonesome Club in Winnipeg.
A painting done by the artist outside the High & Lonesome Club in Winnipeg.