40 Years Ago Today

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 21) – You know him today for baking fresh donuts and brewing hot coffee. You may not recognize him for being the greatest defenseman in Toronto Maple Leafs history.

Both are true.

Also true is that Tim Horton – were he alive – would have celebrated his 84th birthday last month. That possibility ended 40 years ago this morning (Feb. 21, 1974) when the veteran blue-liner killed himself in a single-car accident on the Queen Elizabeth Way near the Lake St. exit in St. Catharines. Having played in throbbing discomfort the previous night for the Buffalo Sabres at Maple Leaf Gardens, Horton – broken jaw swollen; pain-killers coursing through his blood – made the fateful choice of driving home after the loss to Toronto. His teammates traveled by bus, but Horton was given permission to go separately by Sabres’ general manager Punch Imlach, with whom he had won four Stanley Cups in Toronto the previous decade. While typically zooming along in his Ford Pantera, Horton failed to negotiate a curve on the QEW. He was thrown from the vehicle and later found more than 60 feet away. Police estimated he was driving at least 160 kilometers-an-hour.

TIM HORTON PLAYING FOR BUFFALO SABRES IN HIS FINAL NHL GAME.

As long as I live, I’ll not forget the moment my Dad told me about Horton’s death. I had turned 15 earlier in the month and slept in a large bedroom in the basement of our house on Kennard Ave. in North York (then referred to as Downsview). Each morning, Dad would come downstairs and get ready for work in a bathroom across the hall. After finishing, he would drop the Globe and Mail sports section outside my bedroom door. On this day, however, he knocked and woke me up.

“How, I’ve got some sad news: Tim Horton was killed overnight.”

“Whad’ya mean he was killed? I watched him play for the Sabres last night against the Leafs. Why would someone want to kill Tim Horton?”

My first thought is that Horton had somehow been murdered… assuming – I suppose – that he traveled to Buffalo, as per normal, on the team bus.

“Apparently he was driving back when he had a car accident on the QEW,” Dad explained. “I just heard about it on the radio. It happened a few hours ago (around 4:30 a.m.) and there aren’t many details.”

This was not the kind of news a 15-year-old could absorb.

“Tim Horton is dead?” I kept asking myself.

That day, my Grade 9 class at Dufferin Heights Junior High School went on a skiing trip to the Horseshoe Valley resort south of Orillia. I was in total disbelief. My earliest memory of watching hockey on TV included Horton wearing his No. 7 jersey for the Leafs; playing alongside defense-mate Allan Stanley and virtually never allowing an opponent to skate past him. At Imlach’s behest, he had made a comeback with Buffalo and was 44 years old during that final, Wednesday-night game at the Gardens. How could such a rock of a man be dead? It boggled the mind.

FEB. 22, 1974 GLOBE AND MAIL STORY BY COLUMNIST DICK BEDDOES.

Just to be sure, I took a day off school (not recalling, right now, if I told my parents) and attended Horton’s funeral on Feb. 25 at Oriole-York Mills United Church. I had gone to the Leafs Sunday home game the previous night against Los Angeles. That Monday morning, I took a bus to the church and walked into the chapel with everyone else. There were numerous familiar faces to a young hockey fan but I somehow remember Red Berenson – then playing for Detroit – sitting near me. Afterward, I stood behind an open hearse as Horton’s casket was carried to it by pall-bearers Stanley, Bob Baun, George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Dick Duff and Billy Harris – all of them Stanley Cup teammates in Toronto during the 1960’s. I remember it being a surreal moment.

ANOTHER PHOTO FROM TIM HORTON’S FINAL NHL GAME: BUFFALO at TORONTO, WEDNESDAY, FEB. 20, 1974. HERE, LEAF DEFENSEMEN JIM McKENNY (MUSTACHE) AND IAN TURNBULL TRY TO CHECK THE SABRES’ DON LUCE (20) IN FRONT OF VETERAN GOALTENDER EDDIE JOHNSTON. TORONTO WON THE GAME, 4-2. TORONTO STAR IMAGE

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