The Toronto Maple Leafs' giant is dwarfed by his coffee-and-doughnut empire.
His name towers over thousands of highway exits and strip malls, a beacon to weary
travellers, drowsy office drones, scrambling minivan moms and all others in need of
a caffeine-and-sugar jolt. He isn't remembered for Stanley Cups, dramatic goals or
anything else that happened on the ice. But Tim Horton ranks with Henderson,
Howe, Orr, Hull, Richard and Number 99 as one of Canada's most famous hockey
players. If the true measure of fame is name recognition, Horton might be at the
top of the list.
His NHL career spanned 22 seasons and landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But a steady defenseman, no matter how dominant, enjoys limited celebrity. The climb to iconic status began in 1964 when he and a partner opened the "Tim Horton Donut Drive-in" in Hamilton, Ontario. By the time Horton died a decade later the business had expanded to 35 shops.
Today there are over 2,200 "Tim Hortons" outlets in Canada and the northeastern U.S.
As one of the country's signature brand names, Tim Horton still makes front-page news in Canada. In 2002, police seized his 1967 Stanley Cup ring from a Toronto auction house, where it was about to go on the block. The ring had been stolen from Horton's wife, Lori, in 1998. Lori Horton died not long after the theft, several years after losing a legal battle to retain an interest in the restaurant chain.
In many ways, Tim Horton's story is Canadian mythology made real. He was one of several Maple Leaf stars to emerge from the mining towns of Northern Ontario in the 1940s. Over long winters he honed his game and took his lumps in the freezing cold arenas of Cochrane, Copper Creek and other locales of the Nickel Belt League. At the age of 17 he was anointed by the hockey gods: recruited by the Toronto Maple Leafs for their famous St. Michael's junior team. Five years later, in the fall of 1952, he arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens.
For the next two decades, Horton defined the bruising, reliable defenseman who can rush the puck and deliver a hefty slapshot. In today's jock talk, he was a blueline stud - muscular, smart, tough, mobile and sure-handed, a man the coach could send out for 30 minutes a night without worry.
Along with contemporaries like Howe, Hull and Beliveau, Tim Horton is a bridge between hockey's ancient and modern histories. He saw the debut of Hockey Night In Canada, the rise of the hockey card and the move from black-and-white to color television. His salary rose from $9,000 to $150,000. He played with Max Bentley and against Dennis Potvin. He witnessed the NHL's expansion from the cozy Original Six to 14 teams. The league Horton joined was a cottage industry. By the time he played his last game in 1974, the NHL was in the midst of its first shaky attempts to become a lucrative entertainment conglomerate.
Off the ice, his life is a much darker story.
The curious legacy of the Toronto Maple Leafs' greatest defenseman.
In the years since his death, friends and family have revealed that Tim Horton drank too much, that he and Lori endured a difficult and sometimes fractious marriage, and that he struggled to reconcile the pro hockey lifestyle with his family life.
The difficulties were not eased by the precarious state of NHL careers in the 1950s and 1960s. Like most players of his era, Horton was treated with contempt by his employer and took summer jobs to make ends meet. In 1955, when he missed much of the season with a broken jaw and broken leg (inflicted by a crushing bodycheck from the Rangers' Bill Gadsby), the Horton family nearly went broke: no play, no pay. When he returned to the lineup the following year he was fined $100 for "indifferent play" and threatened with a trade.
The year after that he took a salary cut. The efforts that eventually lead to the doughnut chain were initiated by Horton's realization that hockey offered little financial security.
Horton won four Stanley Cups in Toronto before he was dealt to the New York Rangers, after which he moved on to Pittsburgh and finally Buffalo. As he passed the age of 40 he threatened to retire every spring, only to show up at the Sabres' training camp every September, sometimes signing a contract only days before the start of the season.
There was no doubt that he could still play: he was named the Sabres' 1972-73 MVP at the age of 43. In the fall of that year he signed on for another season, the team throwing in a new sports car as a bonus. In February of 1974, a few hours after being named the third star in a victory over the Leafs, Horton set out alone to drive back to Buffalo. The sports car flew off the highway at about 4:30 am and he was killed.
"Tim Hortons" is a trademark now, a snacking habit of such scope that it can be called a Canadian tradition (among its many nods to suburban Canada, the movie Wayne's World includes a stop at "Stan Mikita's Doughnuts"). But the connection between the brand name and the man is incidental. Although Horton's portrait hangs above the counter at most franchises, it means little to the majority of customers who ring up over $1 billion in sales every year.
But the life story behind the portrait remains compelling, partly because it plays to the current fashion in sports biography: glorious on the outside, small and sad on the inside. We hear the same about Cobb, DiMaggio, Sawchuk, Lombardi and many others. Their troubles dulled their triumphs.
The aborted retirements of his final years suggest that Tim Horton wanted to move on, but couldn't quite let go of hockey. Athletes who excel in their 30s and 40s are often admired for sustaining their youthful enthusiasm in the face of middle age. But maybe it's just as much about desperation. Maybe they can't face the thought of giving it up, not after all these years. "What I get paid for are the practices," Horton once said. "I would play the games for nothing."
A massive search and rescue effort scans northern Ontario for any sign of Barilko and the plane he was last seen in. For the next 11 years, the Leafs suffer a long losing streak in their quest for the Cup. In 1962, Barilko's remains are discovered in the plane wreckage hidden by the dense forest. In the same year, Leafs win the Stanley Cup and the apparent curse seems to be lifted.
Did You Know?
• Many rumours circulated about Barilko's whereabouts. One theory postulated that Soviet agents kidnapped Barilko and took him to the Soviet Union to teach hockey teams the fine art of defence. Another imagined him at the centre of a gold smuggling trade gone wrong. Others believed that he was still alive but suffering from amnesia in the woods.
• The Search and Rescue report cited pilot inexperience and bad weather conditions as the cause of the crash.
• On October 31, 1951, The Toronto Maple Leafs offered a $10,000 reward to the person who located Barilko, dead or alive.
• Barilko's sweater number, #5, was formally retired in 1992. Ace Bailey's #6 is the only other Maple Leaf player whose number has been retired. Only players who have suffered a career-ending injury while a member of the team are eligible for this honour.
In the 1951 Stanley Cup finals the Leafs were up against Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey, Bernie Geoffrion and the rest of the mighty Montreal Canadiens. A huge challenge, to be sure, but the Leafs jumped to a 3-1 series lead with all of the first four games determined in overtime. In game five, also in overtime, an unlikely hero scored a dramatic, game-winning and series clinching goal for Toronto. It turned out to be a goal that would echo through the hockey world for generations to come.
Two minutes and 53 seconds into overtime, Bill Barilko, a defenceman who had scored just four goals in 46 playoff games to that point, rushed in from the point, sprawled for a rebound, and lifted a backhand over the shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Gerry McNeil. Barilko's goal clinched the seventh Stanley Cup victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Barilko's fourth since joining the team four years earlier. As a 19 year-old call-up in 1947, Barilko was a determined, tough and little-known defender. Four years later, with one sprawling backhand shot, he had achieved hero status in Toronto. Unfortunately it was the last shot Bill Barilko would ever take. That summer Barilko and a friend died in a plane crash while on a fishing trip in Northern Ontario. The Leafs didn't win another Stanley Cup until 1962 -- the same year Barilko's remains were discovered.
The Toronto Maple Leafs retire very few sweater numbers. In fact there are only two retired numbers hanging from the rafters at the Air Canada Centre: Ace Bailey's #6 and Bill Barilko's #5. Only players who have made a significant contribution to the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club and have experienced a career-ending incident while a member of the Maple Leaf team will have their numbers considered for retirement. Unfortunately for Leaf fans, Barilko meets these criteria. The 24 year-old defenceman died in a tragic plane crash while still in the prime of his career.
Retired Jersey Number #5, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1992
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