A Canadian sports hero in perpetuity

Even I’m not old enough to be able to tell you what a great athlete Red Storey was, even if we were once fellow “inmates” at a Quebec penitentiary (relax, it was for an awards dinner). I am old enough to know that an athlete of his stature, a referee of his stature and a character of his stature should be re-visited in perpetuity.

There are millions of Storey stories — okay, thousands — and, like his career, this one starts with football. When he played, pro sports had no drafts, no hype, no reason to think a talented high school athlete from Barrie could play his way out of The Great Depression.

Red Storey did.

A chance meeting on a Toronto street led him to Canadian football, leaving the railway shop where he worked to launch his pro sports career with the Argos, at 18. Storey played the 1937-38 Grey Cup games against Winnipeg. In the first seven quarters, the team scored 10 points each. In the eighth quarter, Storey scored three touchdowns and just missed a fourth, knocked out of bounds at the Winnipeg five after running 102 yards. Winnipeg’s 7-6 lead quickly became Toronto’s 30-7 victory.

At 23, Storey quit. The Argos, who paid him $50 a week, excluded the post-season, so he walked away. They changed their stance but, principled as he was, Storey told the Argos they’d shown their true colours and he was leaving to play…minor pro hockey.

But his “football knees” threatened Storey’s ability to walk — “amputation” was even mentioned — and that nightmare ended his dreams of playing in the National Hockey League. So the next generation of sports fans soon knew him as an NHL referee…and hockey’s most colourful official. But he also officiated 11 seasons in the football league he’d abandoned, as well as lacrosse and baseball, games he also played at a high level.

As a ref, he once worked four games in three sports in two days.

In his time, the six-team NHL basically had three referees. Storey was one for nine years, until he quit when NHL President Clarence Campbell said he choked in not calling two penalties during a deciding Stanley Cup semi-final game. Storey walked the streets of Boston all night, and then walked away the day of the next playoff game…and on the eve of what would have been his eighth Stanley Cup Final.

Unemployed once more, Storey was soon introduced to his greatest generation, the people he entertained at celebrity dinners, or while refereeing more than a thousand charity hockey games across Canada (a fund-raising vehicle of his creation), or by doing colour commentary on everything from Montreal Alouettes radio to Hockey Night in Canada. He wrote sports columns in English for French newspapers…and appeared more than 200 times a year as a corporate “entertainer” for Seagram Distilleries. His mantra was to make people laugh.

Millions did.

Red Storey was Canada’s best football player, at least for one November afternoon. He was a hockey referee who called what he saw and didn’t call what he didn’t see. On ice and in life, his glass was always half-full.

Athletes like that — people like that — should be remembered forever.