TORONTO — Growing up in Israel, long before the country had its first ice rink, Avi Dunkelman had little notion of the sport of hockey, much less what a slap shot, body check or power play were. In the Haifa neighborhood where he came of age, he and his friends lived for soccer.
As a youth, Dunkelman also developed a passion for postage stamps, which decades later would figure prominently in his professional life. His father worked as a chef on a passenger ship traveling to Europe and often sent his family postcards from abroad. Dunkelman would soak the cards in water, carefully separating the stamps for his album. While amassing his collection, the aesthetic of the stamps ignited his interest in graphic design.
Today, as a successful graphic designer in Toronto, Dunkelman, 62, is more involved than ever with stamps. More surprising, he’s now also steeped in hockey, which has occupied a major place in his work in recent years.
His high-profile stamp designs for Canada Post focusing on legendary hockey heroes are seen by millions of people in his adopted country where the sport reigns supreme. It’s an unlikely mandate for a hockey-deprived Israeli to be at the heart of Canada’s prestigious five-year stamp program honoring the game’s towering figures.
“It’s ironic for an Israeli like me with no hockey background to have such a key role in this project for Canada Post,” says Dunkelman, who won the assignment with his business partner. “Even though I’ve had very little exposure to the game, I’ve been able to offer a different perspective that’s conceptually driven.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of hockey in Canada where it’s by far the most popular sport, both professionally and recreationally, and is deeply embedded in the country’s history and culture. With long, cold winters, ice rinks abound in every community. Hockey has pride of place in Canada where it’s a near-sacrosanct, inseparable part of the national identity and psyche.
This hockey obsession manifests itself in countless ways, even on the current list of best-selling Canadian non-fiction books, of which five of the top 10 are about hockey. Little surprise then that Canada Post would create a major program to honor the National Hockey League’s 100th anniversary in 2017 — which also happens to be Canada’s 150th birthday.
Launched in 2013, the estimated multi-million dollar project consists of 69 stamps along with souvenir sheets, booklets, first day covers, and coil strips, all celebrating Canada’s starring role in the NHL’s first century.
So far, the post office has issued a new collection each year, paying tribute to Canadian marquee players and diverse aspects of the game. The first release focused on Canadian team jerseys, followed by six illustrious defensemen in 2014 and six all-star goalies in 2015. All the stamps deftly capture the spirit and intensity of the game through the use of strong, bold visuals.
Next fall will see the launch of the fifth and final installment in the program. Given hockey’s exalted status in Canada, the ceremonial unveiling of each new set of stamps receives lots of attention. Last September, Dunkelman took his wife (a social worker at a local hospital) and their two children to the event at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Canada Post presented the fourth installment, this one immortalizing great Canadian forwards, who are among the most prolific goal scorers in the sport’s history.
“As my wife is Canadian and my kids are born in Canada, they have more of an emotional engagement with hockey than me as I’m kind of an outsider,” says Dunkelman, who works from home in a heavily Jewish suburb of Toronto where most former Israelis live. “At the launch events, it’s been great to meet players who are so revered in Canada, like Bobby Orr, Steve Yzerman, Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden and to take pictures with them and my family and have them autograph the stamps.”
He easily cites the players, all household names in Canada, as if he’s been following hockey his whole life.
“Meeting the players and their families and seeing how appreciative they are for being featured on a Canadian stamp made a big impression on me.”
Recently, Dunkelman designed the book jacket for the memoir of an Israeli-Canadian man who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. It hit home for Dunkelman, whose late parents were Holocaust survivors.
Dunkelman first studied graphic design at an art and design high school in Haifa. In 1976, after serving in the IDF for three years, he worked for a year as an apprentice in a Tel Aviv design firm and then moved to Toronto in 1977 to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). After graduating and working at a Toronto studio, he went to Switzerland to study advanced graphic design. While there, he did a thesis project developing a Hebrew typeface that could be visually integrated with Latin alphabets in a bilingual environment.
He then returned to Toronto where he set up his own design firm and started teaching at OCAD. He also provided design services in Israel and for Israeli clients in Canada, winning awards in North America for his poster designs and branding projects.
In 2000, Dunkelman designed his first stamp for the post office’s Canada Millennium Series. It focused on the late acclaimed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. In 2010, Dunkelman and Joe Gault, a fellow professor at OCAD, formed a partnership under the name Mix Design Group. Among their early clients was Canada Post, for whom they designed two stamps in 2011 saluting the Asian Year of the Snake.
Thanks to that collaboration, Canada Post invited them to apply for the hockey series. Designers had to submit a concept to a panel of 20 judges showcasing the jerseys of Canada’s seven NHL teams in a way that engaged people with the game.
“We tried all kinds of concepts,” says Dunkelman, who has only attended three hockey games in his life. “Instead of doing a catalogue shot of the jerseys, we put them in a game environment, showing the interaction between a player and fan in a specific spot in the arena. The player is on the ice next to the boards with the fan behind the glass watching the game.”
Dunkelman, who stays closely tied to Israel, is still passionate about soccer. But he remembers the first time he witnessed a hockey game.
“Despite sitting in good seats, I struggled to follow the puck,” he says. “My first impression was that hockey is such an extremely fast game. The dynamics, the speed and physical contact really impressed me, even if I didn’t know anything about the sport.”
On winning the Canada Post competition, Dunkelman knew he’d have to discover more about hockey to better tackle the assignment.
“I’ve learned a lot about hockey by working on this project,” he says. “We had to go through hundreds of photos for each stamp before choosing the final images. Sometimes I’d look at them and my partner, who’s Canadian-born and has played hockey his whole life, would tell me that’s not really the right position.
“It was a good balance between someone looking at things in a neutral, unbiased way versus someone who’s emotionally engaged with the game having grown up watching all these legendary players on TV.”
For his part, Dunkelman has never played hockey in his life, and his only attempt at skating proved ill-fated 35 years ago.
“Avi may not have had a high level of hockey knowledge when we began the design process but he quickly became familiar with all aspects of the sport through research, collaboration and solving design challenges,” says Gault, 61. “As a designer, he’s able to quickly pick up visual cues, such as body positions, and apply that knowledge.”
The project has both visual and technical challenges. Uniformity can be elusive as the images come from different periods, some digital, some on film, some taken with a flash, others not. They must be the right format and have the necessary resolution. Although the stamps are relatively small, the artwork must be prepared at five times its final size.
Adding to the task, Canada Post places invisible security devices into the stamps so they can’t be counterfeited, imposing space restrictions on the design.
For all the hard work and challenges, it’s highly gratifying for Dunkelman to create these stamps, which are promoted and sold online and at 6,360 post offices across Canada.
“When I receive mail, even bills, and I see one of my stamps on the envelope, it makes for an interesting connection,” says Dunkelman. “For me, it completes the loop, being the designer, working on the production side and then seeing somebody actually use the stamp.”