Being in the sports media gave one writer & broadcaster the opportunity to interview sports personalities he never imagined he’d even meet in places he never imagined he’d be. These will be his stories about their stories — or just about them — from the pages of his past, while working out of Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
There is Tim Hortons, and there is Tim Horton. While 525 Kings Highway is one of almost 5,000 of the legendary coffee stops, there was only one Tim Horton. He was a hockey player five decades ago, preparing for retirement with his donut shop, never anticipating it would one day spawn a coast-to-coast empire.
As he relaxed on a leather chair in Montreal’s Mount Royal Hotel lobby, room key in hand and looking more like a businessman than a defenceman for the Buffalo Sabres, I knew I was in the presence of royalty…hockey royalty, not a future King of Coffee.
It was 48 years ago, and Tim Horton was hours away from playing his 22nd and final Stanley Cup playoff game in Montreal, 19 of them during his 18 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadiens’ hated rivals. What I remember best about the interview was how pleasant and how candid Horton was, and that he had a sense of humour. He was 43.
“As you get older,” Horton said, “you get lazier. You stay back a little more. I don’t think I’ve been past centre ice all winter! It’s kinda nice.”
Even so, he was in contract negotiations with Buffalo GM Punch Imlach.
“Let’s just say I’ve been asked to come back,” Horton said with a smile.
The next night, he played his 125th playoff game. The Sabres won in overtime. Horton was not a factor statistically, only reliably. Two nights later in Buffalo, he played the last one.
While Horton was already showing signs of becoming a donut executive, he signed a new contract with the Sabres in fall 1973, just three months before his 44th birthday. Eleven months later, he was gone, killed in a crash while driving a sports car that Imlach had included in the deal.
In his prime, Horton was paid $25,000 for being one of the world’s top 10 defencemen, when NHL teams dressed only four. He was a tough (as in hard) guy for the Leafs; labelled hockey’s strongest man. As tough as he was, when the Leafs traded their famed No. 7 in 1970, Horton cried.
And 46 years later, the Leafs retired No. 7.
Tim Horton’s name will likely live on forever among Canadian coffee drinkers – who never knew what a star he was.