Monday, November 23, 2015


One year ago today, the hockey world lost one of its most beloved citizens, Pat Quinn.

In his first National Hockey League game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 27, 1968, Quinn let his opponents know they should keep their heads up when he came over the boards.

Red Burnett's game story in the Toronto Daily Star on Quinn's debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins noted the rookie's physical play:

Pat Quinn, another Tulsa Oiler (the Leafs' farm team in the CHL), took Dorey's place on defence and bombed Angotti (Lou) with a solid check to let the Penguins know he meant business.

Long after Quinn burst onto the NHL scene, his reputation has grown beyond that of an enforcer turned coach and executive. He became a mentor, who gave back to the game and cared about the people around him.

The story about how these character traits evolved and were nurtured are told in a new book on Pat Quinn published by Penguin Random House.

Earlier this month, Mike Wilson hosted a special event 'Inside the Room' to celebrate the release of Quinn - The Life of a Hockey Legend. Pat Quinn's siblings - Carol, Guy and Barry - were on hand to remember their brother.

Carol standing between Guy (L) and Barry.

Dan Robson (R) with Mike Wilson
Dan Robson, who authored the book, provided insight into the making of this mammoth project.

"It was an opportunity that was given to me, which I was fortunate to have," Robson said in his opening remarks.

His involvement in this undertaking began in December 2014. An email from Nick Garrison of Random House led to them meeting over drinks at a pub in Toronto.

"He started talking about Pat, who passed away 3 weeks before, and the outpouring of emotions and love for Pat in those 3 weeks after he passed away. Nick wanted to capture all that in a book and he asked me if I wanted that chance."

Robson jumped at the offer and as he stated, "it was the biggest opportunity I had in my career."

But his first reaction doesn't come as a surprise, taking into account the task at hand.

"I was immediately terrified, then I said, absolutely. It was a huge challenge, but one I hoped I could take on and do well."

When word filtered out that Robson, a senior writer with Sportsnet Magazine, would be penning Quinn's story, there was skepticism about a young scribe getting the job. Some held the opinion a contemporary of Quinn's in the media would be best suited for the assignment.

"I would expect there would be a great deal of skepticism and I had a great deal of skepticism myself," Robson said in response to the assertion. "I was in university when Pat was coaching the Leafs. I know people were unsure of me from the beginning. My goal and my job was to say here is a man, who was greatly respected and loved, and I have a blank slate."

To achieve this goal, Robson set out "to speak to everybody who knew Pat from all different capacities." Close to 100 interviews were conducted in the process. "It was my opportunity to fill in the blanks and not have any preconceived notions and try my best to tell the story through their words."

Robson's first priority was to speak with Carol, Guy and Barry.

"It starts on Glennie Avenue in east end Hamilton," Robson said of Quinn's childhood home. To this day, the house remains in the possession of Pat's sister, Carol. "I remember sitting down with Carol and having coffee all afternoon."

Roaming the rooms where a subject lived as a child can help a writer gain a sense of life back then for the individual. The fact a sibling is supplying commentary during the research is pure gold.

"I walked around the house where Pat and the rest of the Quinn family grew-up and there is so much of the family in there."

Listening to Robson chat about the Quinn family and Hamilton, it was easy to grasp the importance to him of not beginning with the obvious, but digging deeper into Pat's roots.

"Everyone thinks they know Pat from the Leafs, Canucks and Team Canada, but I had the chance to get to know where it all began. Everyone talks about Pat being a loyal man of strong values and I wanted to know where that began."

One value Robson discovered was "the pursuit of excellence that Pat had since he was a boy," a pursuit that followed Quinn into his adulthood. "He worked several jobs and was always trying to better himself. He always tried to push himself further."

Robson told the gathering "the time Quinn spent before making it is one of my favourite parts of his story."

"He was so driven by school while still toiling in the minors. He obviously loved hockey and was travelling from place to place with his family."

Delving into Quinn's history gave Robson an understanding of how he functioned later in life.

"Even after he made it and the Flyers went undefeated in 35 games and he won coach of the year, Pat still wanted to become a lawyer."

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the exploration of Quinn's relationships with people he met along the way.

"The relationship between Pat and Trevor Linden is one that really moved me," Robson stated. "Their relationship was the most emblematic of what Pat meant to so many other people."

A trip out west in March of this year allowed Robson to meet with Linden in Vancouver and they hooked-up shortly after the Canucks organization held their tribute honouring Quinn.

"We had a long chat about Quinn as his mentor. It wasn't about the X's & O's of hockey, but Pat taking Trevor as a teenage kid, who was just about to play in the NHL, and mentor him to the point of what he became."

The end result of Robson's effort is a 349-page gem documenting Quinn the hockey legend and man.

"It started in late January (2015) and finished up in July," Robson said of the writing timeline, which by any standard is a tight deadline. "The good thing about writing about a guy like Pat Quinn, there is no shortage of people to talk about Pat Quinn. Once you got going, they just kept coming and that's what is so special about Pat Quinn."

The last word went to Pat's brother, Barry Quinn.

"It was a privilege to be Pat's brother," Barry said as he stood to address the crowd. "We were privileged to have the parents we did, my sister Carol, my brother Guy and my brother Phillip, who passed away 24 years ago."

Like his big brother, it was obvious Barry wore his big Irish heart on his sleeve.

"It was tough to lose Pat and we think about him almost everyday, He was a great guy," Barry stated with great deal of pride and a twinge of emotion in his voice.

Then, he turned his attention to Dan Robson.

"We're really glad with the way Dan has put this book together. I'm proud of Pat and I'm proud of Dan. He (Dan) has made our family proud."

There is no better ringing endorsement for Quinn - The Life of a Hockey Legend than the one spoken by Barry Quinn.

Monday, November 16, 2015


Mike Wilson's special guest 'Inside the Room' earlier this month was former Philadelphia Flyers sniper, Reggie Leach.

A gifted goal scorer, Reggie's most productive NHL season was in 1975-76. On an offensive tear, he rifled home 61 goals and added 19 more in the playoffs. Despite losing to Montreal in the Stanley Cup Final, Reggie captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He is the only skater on a losing team to win this award. All the other winners have been goalies.

His appearance 'Inside the Room' came just days before the release of his book, The Riverton Rifle.

 Speaking before a captivated audience, Reggie talked about how he became the man he is today. The role hockey played in life and the struggles he faced. How he turned his life around and is now a powerful force in the First Nations community.

"I grew-up in the little town of Riverton, Manitoba, which had a population of 650 people," Reggie said of his start in life. "There were only 2 or 3 native families in Riverton. I was a snotty little kid and my clothes were always dirty."

"I didn't start skating until I was 10," he noted of his late start on blades. "I put on my brothers skates. They were size 11 and I'd stuff them with papers so they wouldn't fall off. That is what I used for 4 years. Today, I only use a size 7 skate."

Like many kids, Reggie hit the pavement to first learn the game.

"I played a lot of road hockey. I played goal because I was short and fat and I couldn't run."

The major hockey team in town made a tremendous impact on young Reggie.

"When I was 12 or 13, the Riverton Lions senior team were my heroes. They were the best players in town. I knew a little about the National Hockey League, but not that much. The Lions were the guys I  respected and I wanted to be like them."

And it didn't him long to share the ice with his hockey heroes.

"At the age of 13, I was good enough to play with the senior team for a couple of years."

Scouted by the Detroit Red Wings, they arranged for Reggie to play Junior "B" in Saskatchewan.

"So, I go there and being a native kid, it was my first time away from home. I'd get up in the morning go to school and hockey practice. Then, I'd go back and sit in my basement. I did that until Christmas. That's how lonesome I was."

Unable to to adjust to his new surroundings, Reggie decided to take action.

"I went home for Christmas and stayed home. There was no way I was going back. All my friends were in Riverton and I rejoined the Lions."

His return home, as Reggie stated, "is where everything turned around for me."

Over time, with the help of one gentleman, Reggie realized his growth as a person and hockey player was dependant on one factor.

"I'm hanging around the senior team and having a couple of drinks with them all the time at the age of 14 or 15."

A former coach recognized the pitfalls of Reggie's ways and provided him with some positive direction.

"He took me to a restaurant for dinner. We talked about hockey and what I wanted to do in life. I hated school and told him I wanted to be a hockey player in the National Hockey League."

What happened next helped Reggie get on the path to success.

"He pointed to a guy on the street and said, 'that guy could have been a pro hockey player, but he drank too much.' I said, I'm not going to do that," Reggie told his mentor of his intention to curb his booze consumption.

"He told me I had to leave Riverton and he made some calls. At that time, Detroit owned junior teams in Weyburn and Flin Flon."

Reggie explained the criteria set by the Red Wings when it came to placing prospects in either Weyburn, Saskatchewan or Flin Flon, Manitoba.

"Anybody that didn't go to school went to Flin Flon and skated for the Bombers. We had to show-up every morning and sign in at The Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company, then spend the next 4 hours trying to hide."

In Flin Flon, Reggie met Bobby Clarke, who became his lineman and the two of them later won a Stanley Cup with Philadelphia.

"I remember the first time we met. I was in the Whitney Forum shooting pucks against the boards. This was in August and there was no ice. He was watching me and came down and introduced himself. We were never apart for the next three years. We bought our clothes together and we sat together on the bus."

Reggie's NHL journey began in 1970, when the Boston Bruins selected him in the Draft.

He fondly recalled his first taste of NHL action, when he was inserted into the line-up for a exhibition contest against Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings.

"He was one of my idols," Reggie noted of Mr. Hockey. "All I remember is Bobby Orr coming up to me and saying, 'Reg, keep your head up, Gordie is going to test you.' So, on one play I go around the net and sure enough, Howe elbowed me. I turned around and slashed him."

This reactionary response didn't go unnoticed by Number 9.

"He said to me, 'kid you're going to be okay.' He skated away and I knew I scared him," a comment Reggie made with a big smile.

"I was the highest paid door-opener for 2 years," he said with a chuckle. "I made the roster, but in most games I got one or two shits."

By February 1972, Reggie's lack of ice time with the Bruins began to frustrate him.

"Getting out of Boston, I sort of forced the issue. I told them I'm not playing and I want to get traded so I can play."

Reggie got his wish when the Original Six Bruins dealt him to the expansion Oakland Seals. While he got plenty of play with Oakland, the team didn't have much success on the ice.

"The only good thing about Oakland was the fact our owner, Charlie Finley, also owned the Oakland A's. We got free tickets to the World Series."

His exit out of sunny California came in 1974.

"I got traded in May to Philadelphia and they were the Stanley Cup champions."

The shift east reunited Reggie with his junior pal, Bobby Clarke.

"Clarkie, Bill Barber and I were put together," Reggie noted of Fred Shero's new line combination.

On the topic of his coach in Philly, Reggie told a story which gave insight into the genius that is Fred Shero.

"The first year I was there we would practice the same break-out play everyday for 20-minutes.  But we would never use it in a game. We did that for 4 months straight. Then, all of a sudden in March he said, 'all right guys time we switched.' That is when we went for the second Cup and we had the new system going into the playoffs."

The most moving part of the evening came when Reggie talked about his drinking problem.

"I'm an alcoholic," Reggie told the hushed room. "My problems started around '78-'79. I didn't really realize it at the time. I use to quit for all the wrong reasons. I quit for family or the Flyers wanted me to quit."

The turning point in Reggie's battle with the brown bottle came in his post-hockey life.

"Finally, in 1985, I quit on my own for myself and nobody else. I haven't drank since and it has been 30 years this September."

This brings us to Reggie Leach getting to this point in his life.

"I do a lot of public speaking in First Nations communities. I talk about life choices and drugs and alcohol. I tell the kids to learn one thing a day and it will take you a long way."

His book - The Riverton Rifle - is now available and after listening to Reggie talk about his life and hockey career it is a must read. It is a wonderful blend of inspirational stories and chronicles his rise to become a star player in the National Hockey League.

"It is not a show-and-tell book," Reggie said of The Riverton Rifle. "It is what I learnt from my lifetime to become an elder."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


When I got outside, attacking planes were coming from every which direction dropping incendiaries as well as anti-personnel bombs that sent out a swath of fragments when they hit the ground. Fires lit up the target. Our trucks were hit and burning. Some of our gunners had been hit and others had run to take their places. Even in the confusion I was proud of the way my men were standing up. The night was full of gunfire, explosions, shouts, and screams.
- Conn Smythe's observations after his Battery Unit was attacked in Caen on July 25, 1944.

Long after the likes of Conn Smythe had taken a stand and signed up to participate in World War Two, the hockey world continues to remember the sacrifices they made.

Recently, the Toronto-NHL Oldtimers made their annual trip to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto to visit those living in the Veterans Wing. For the players, this is one jaunt they gladly make knowing the good feeling they get from meeting everyone at Sunnybrook. After having their lunch the Veterans gathered to listen to several short speeches, then the fun part of the activities took place. The players descended from the stage and took part in a meet and greet session. As each player worked the room one could see the joy they brought to those who fought for our Country.

Al Shaw, who organized the visit, gives his opening remarks.

Ron Hurst delights the gathering crowd with his storytelling.

Gary England seated between Johnny Bower and Dick Duff. Throughout the year, Gary secured autographs on a Stanley Cup photo for the Veterans.

Johnny Bower making the presentation to one of the Veterans.

Gary Collins

Bob Nevin
Pete Conacher

Brian McFarlane
Dick Duff

Ivan Irwin

Johnny Bower with Hockey Night in Canada pioneer Murray Westgate.

Never lost during the visit was the bravery and courage the Veterans showed to make this world a greater and safer place for future generations. The ultimate sacrifice being made by those who never returned and lost their lives fighting for our freedom.

Friday, October 23, 2015


One of the amazing aspects of team sports is the bond that develops between teammates. Through good and bad times the bond only seems to get stronger. It remains intact long after the last game has been played and the next generation takes over. And a perfect example of this came in late August when former members of the Ottawa Nationals, Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls gathered for a reunion held at the home of Mike Wilson (The Ultimate Leafs Fan).

As Mike's spacious backyard slowly began to fill up it didn't take long for the chatter to begin. Strolling through the grounds one could stop and listen as teammates told their stories. Included in the interaction was plenty of laughing and backslapping.

I stopped in my tracks and watched as Gilles Gratton and Les Binkley, both goalies with the Nationals and Toros, crossed paths.

"'Binkey', is that you?" Gratton asked as he approached Les Binkley. In a matter of seconds they were catching up and reminiscing about their times between the pipes.

And that is what the occasion was all about. The air was saturated with their stories and what they were up to back in the day.

It was an exciting time for hockey as the World Hockey Association started to take hold and make an impact.

The glue that bonded the Nationals, Toros and Bulls together was supplied by one individual, Johnny F. Bassett. The young and innovative entrepreneur purchased the Ottawa team and moved them to Toronto after one year in Canada's national city. Then, the franchise shifted from Toronto to Birmingham, Alabama.

Thus, it was fitting that his son, John C. Bassett, played a major role in organizing and reaching out to the players to encourage their attendance. Decked out in a vintage Toronto Toros necktie, John brought framed team photos and they helped spark memories and conversations. Mike Wilson, Paul Patskou and Tom Large joined John in getting this event off the ground.


The club was first based in Ottawa, Ontario. The franchise was granted to Doug Michel, but Nick Trbovich took over as the majority owner. The team was called the Ottawa Nationals.
 Former Toronto Maple Leaf, Billy Harris, was behind the bench when the Nationals played their first game on October 11, 1972. With the Civic Centre only half-filled, Ottawa fell 7-4 to the Alberta Oilers. The first goal for Ottawa came off the stick belonging to Bob Charlebois.
 Hampered by low attendance during the 1972-73 campaign, Ottawa fled the nations capital when playoff time rolled around. Instead of playing in Ottawa, the Nationals landed in Toronto. They called Maple Leaf Gardens home for their opening series against the New England Whalers.
 In competition with junior club in town, the Ottawa 67s (OHA), who had Dennis Potvin in their line-up, the Nationals couldn't gain a spot in the marketplace.
 The nail in the coffin came when the city of Ottawa requested the club pay a $100,000 rental bond.
 Buck Houle, general manager of the Nationals, could see the writing on-the-wall.
"To me, Ottawa seems like the kind of town in which it would take two or three years, at least, to get a following and then you couldn't be sure." - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015.

 "It was a little bit different from the NHL," Les Binkley told me about his impression of the quality of play in the WHA. "In the NHL you played with better players and it was more organized.

One memory stands out for Binkley from when Ottawa played their first regular season game against the Alberta Oilers. "The first game we played was on TV. I had just come from the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL) and Billy Hickie was playing with me in Pittsburgh. He got a penalty shot for the Oilers and I knew what he was going to do and he knew what I was going to. He scored."

Bob Charlebois, a native of Cornwall, Ontario, spent one season with the Ottawa Nationals.

'I played the whole first year in Ottawa and I have fond memories," Charlebois said. "I ended-up playing in the initial WHA All-Star Game and ultimately, I think that got me traded. I had a good game that night and my play caught the eye of Whalers coach, Jack Kelley. In year two when the team moved to Toronto, I was traded to the New England Whalers for Brit Selby."

While disappointed to leave his teammates there was a silver-lining for Charlebois in the trade. 

"I had an automatic three year contract extension," Charlebois revealed.

Although Charlebois didn't spend the next season with the Toros he did come to Toronto with the Nationals for the 1973 playoffs.

"The players were told a couple of days earlier that we were going to move (for the post-season) overnight. The story goes that buses moved into the Civic Centre and the equipment was loaded. We were told that our families were moving into a hotel in downtown Toronto."

Rick Sentes, also an original Ottawa National, commented on the WHA's impact on the game.

"I played in the American Hockey League and led my team in scoring. I was owned by the Detroit Red Wings and didn't get called up for a single game. They had the worst record in the entire NHL. The WHA came along, so I jumped to play in the league."

Sentes provided his view on why the Nationals departed from Ottawa.

"I think it was for the better. The crowds weren't that good in Ottawa. It was struggling attendance wise."

One individual not happy about leaving Ottawa for the '73 playoffs was Gilles Gratton.

"We started in Ottawa, then suddenly, moved to Toronto for the playoffs That was a real bummer. We got to Toronto and there's like 2,000 people watching the game. It was a downer."



 On May 2, 1973, Johnny F. Bassett and his Can Sports group purchased the Ottawa Nationals with the intention of keeping them in Toronto.
 Two important tasks awaited the new owner of Toronto's second professional hockey team - a place to call home and a name.
 Eventually, Bassett settled on Varsity Arena, with Sunday nights being reserved for WHA hockey.
 The second job consisted of finding a name.
 On June 11, 1973, Bassett welcomed the Toronto media and revealed the Toro name and sweater.
 The Toronto Toros played their first game on October 7, 1973 at Varsity. The visitors were Pat Stapleton and the Chicago Cougars. A near capacity crowd watched as the Toros and Cougars skated to a 4-4 draw.
 The honour of scoring the Toronto Toros first goal went to Tommy "Shotgun" Simpson. Noted for his skills on offence, Simpson went on to score 52 goals with the Toros in 1974-75.
 A change of scenery occurred in 1974, when the Toros departed Varsity Arena for the spacious confines of Maple Leaf Gardens. This was a no-win situation for Bassett. He found himself saddled with a huge rental bill and enormous costs when it came to using the television lights at the Gardens. - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015 

One of the first arrivals at the reunion was Frank Mahovlich. "The Big M" was one of several players to play for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Toros. Former Leafs and Toros also on-hand for the reunion were Wayne Carleton, Paul Henderson and Jim Dorey. No longer with us from the  Leafs-Toros group are Carl Brewer and Guy Trottier. Representing Brewer at the reunion was his partner, Sue Foster.

During his tour of Mike Wilson's stunning collection, Mahovlich told a story about his centreman with the Toros, Gavin Kirk. He remembered Kirk, "placing passes between my skates."

A story that Kirk also couldn't resist telling.

"I remember the third game we were playing and I had Frank Mahovlich and Mark Napier as my wingers," Kirk said as he began dishing-out the details.

"We were in Chicago and halfway through the second period, Frank turns to me and says, 'Gav, you're the worst centreman I've ever played with.' I didn't think that was very funny, but Frank laughed and I got mad."

Later, Mahovlich explained to Kirk why he made that comment.

"We had a discussion," and as Kirk noted, "Mahovlich said, 'by the way the only other centremen I played with were Davey Keon (Maple Leafs), Alex Delvecchio (Red Wings) and Jean Beliveau (Canadiens).' So, I was okay with that comment."

Vaclav Nedomansky (R) with Frank Mahovlich

Besides Mahovlich and Henderson, another big-fish landed by the Toros was Vaclav Nedomansky. In 1974, Nedomansky fled Czechoslovakia via Switzerland. Having escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, Nedomansky's new surroundings in Canada made the transition go smoother.

"I felt like home here (Toronto) and it was a hockey town, which made it easier for me to come here as a hockey player," said 'Big Ned', who subsequently played in the NHL with Detroit, St. Louis and the New York Rangers.

Asked about the differences between playing back home and in North America, he replied, "there was a smaller rink and the games were based on individual players and the toughness of players."

Nedomansky fondly looked back at his time living in Toronto.

"I loved it and I thought it was going to be my home. We lived in North York and when we moved in '76 (to Birmingham) I was sad. I lived here (in the off-season) until 1979, and then we moved to Detroit."

Still connected with the game as a pro scout with the Nashville Predators, Nedomansky gave his take on the current crop of players.

"They are physically better and they are faster. The top players are very skilled and it is enjoyable to watch."

One of the big thrills for those transplanted from Ottawa to to Toronto was the opportunity to eventually play in Maple Leaf Gardens. But first, they called Varsity Arena, which is located in downtown Toronto, their home.

"Varsity Arena at the time was a real barn," Rick Sentes recalled. "It was dark and cold. The boards had no give in them. I remember one night running at Larry Hillman and when he moved, I hit my shoulder against the boards and suffered a seperation."

In year two, the Toros made their way to Maple Leaf Gardens.

"I loved playing at the Gardens because when you played for an American team there wasn't much TV coverage," Les Binkley pointed out. "The people back home knew you played hockey, but didn't see you play much. With the Toros, all my friends got to see the games and that was important to me."

On the other hand, Gilles Gratton had a different point of view.

"We were at Varsity Arena and it was cool. I liked it better than Maple Leaf Gardens. Varsity had 4,000 seats and it was a great atmosphere. I always thought the Gardens was dead."

A free spirit, Gratton wasn't your conventional hockey player on or off the ice.

"I was kind of a flake you could say," Gratton told me. "When I left Toronto I was angry because they fired our coach, Billy Harris. He was like a father figure to me. That is why I left Toronto."

Then, came Gratton's brief 47 game gig in the National Hockey League.

"I went to St. Louis and played six games. I got into a fight with the coach (Gary Young) and left. My last year in New York I just hated it. It was a year in hell. I decided that year I wouldn't play hockey anymore. I just left."

Commenting on the difference in play between the WHA and NHL, Gratton stated, "the defence in the NHL was tighter. The WHA was more open because the defencemen came from the juniors or the American Hockey League. The WHA hockey was more entertaining for the crowds."

Gilles Gratton (R) with Les Binkley

On one occasion, Gratton and Binkley were called upon to participate in a unique publicity promotion. Between periods, Gratton was to face American daredevil Evel Knievel in a penalty shot competition. But at the last moment Gratton bailed.

"I wasn't suppose to take the shots, Gilles Gratton was to," Binkley stated. "But they couldn't find him. Knievel scored two goals and got ten-thousand dollars. I stopped two and got two-thousand dollars. We had our team party with that money."

Upon his retirement from the game, Gratton travelled the world seeking spiritual enlightenment and happiness. In 2006 The New York Times reported that Gratton, after hanging up his goalie pads for good, "...spent three years at ashrams in India and the next 20 or so moving around Europe."


 After 2 years at the 'House Conn Smythe Built,' Bassett made an important decision. On June 10, 1976, he announced that the Toros were packing up and shipping out to Birmingham, Alabama. Clearly, Birmingham offered Bassett a fresh start. The city had a new arena and he would no longer be held for ransom by the owner of Maple Leaf Gardens. Just as important, his hockey club didn't have to live in the shadow of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
 The Birmingham Bulls played their first regular season game in football country on October 8, 1976. As was the case in the Toros first contest, "Shotgun" Simpson rifled home the Bulls first goal.
 It didn't come as a surprise when, in late March of 1979, the NHL and WHA merged. Four of the six remaining WHA franchises were invited to the dance, but Bassett's Birmingham Bulls were left out in the cold. They did, however, receive $2.85-million to go away. - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015

"When I got traded to Birmingham from Phoenix, I knew about Birmingham, but I quickly found out once I got there (1976-77) that it was a great city," Dave Gorman observed about his new hockey home. "The people were very hospitable and there were a bunch of great guys down there."

I was curious about the fan reaction to hockey in an area known for being a football hotbed.

"They weren't overly hockey knowledgeable, but they certainly had their heart and soul behind us. I was pleasantly surprised by the crowds we got."

In March 1979, news came of the NHL-WHA merger with Birmingham and Cincinnati not receiving an invitation. Asked if he was disappointed by this, Gorman's response didn't come as a surprise.

"Yes, very much so that Birmingham wasn't one of the teams. They certainly had the facility."

Gavin Kirk provided this appraisal of the situation.

"In Birmingham, Johnny Bassettt signed the 'Baby Bulls' to play with the likes of Mahovlich and Henderson. If they ever kept that team together we would have gone a long way."

The 'Baby Bulls' included such names as Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Pat Riggin, Craig Harrisburg, Gaston Gingras and Rob Langway.

Also weighing in on Birmingham's exclusion was Peter Marrin, who signed with the Toros after winning the Memorial Cup in 1973.

"I can't imagine what Birmingham would have been like if it had been brought in as well," Marrin said of the merger. "Even if we had to move north, pick a Canadian city that wouldn't like to have a start with those players."

Marrin made a bold prediction on how the Bulls would have faired in the new hockey landscape.

"John Bassett might not have been too far behind, and I dare say it, something like an Edmonton Oiler dynasty. We really had some great young players. If they were ever kept together, John was on the right track."


A constant thread in the conversation at the reunion was the late John F. Bassett.

"I have to thank him for everything he did for me," Vaclav Nedomansky stated. "It was my first chance to play hockey professionally and come with my family to North America. It was always my dream to play here."

Steve King, who skated for the Nationals and Toros, stated that, "they (Bassett and his ownership group) treated us like royalty."

"A lot of time at practice, John would come down and we'd sit together on the bench," Les Binkley recalled. "He was just like one of us. He wanted to be around the sports guys and we appreciated what he did."

"For me and my wife, Heather, he paid the bills," Peter Marrin noted of the financial benefits of playing for an owner like John Bassett. "We really miss him. He was a sportsmen. I just can't imagine what the Toronto sports scene would be like with John Bassett on the scene."

Johnny F. Bassett

Great insight into John F. Bassett the man, husband and father was provided by his widow, Susan Bassett.

"Like anything he did in sports, John gave 100 percent," Susan noted of her husbands work ethic. "I just think it was in his blood. His father had been involved with the Maple Leafs and Argonauts. In John's case it was the next generation trying to carry it on."

Taking into account the demands on Bassett's time, I enquired what impact this had on the family.

"I'm sure it was probably an unusual family life," Susan replied. "The father wasn't at home having dinner every night and sometimes wouldn't be home for several weeks. But by today's standards it would be pretty normal."

One advantage to owning a sports franchise is the entire family can become involved.

"We went to all the games as a family when they were in Toronto and Birmingham," Susan said of the Bassett family tradition. "We lived in Birmingham and I loved it. It was a southern environment and the people were very hospitable and generous. They had never known the game of hockey, so it was a challenge. We loved it as a family."

There was speculation her husband had an interest in owning the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"He would have had to get Harold (Ballard) out of the way," Susan said with a chuckle. "Harold was as competitive as my husband Johnny, but they were a generation apart."

As Susan pointed out, roadblocks were already in place, which could have stopped a Bassett from gaining control of the historic hockey club and Maple Leaf Gardens.

"Harold and 'Big' John were also competitive," Susan explained in reference to her father-in-law's relationship with Harold Ballard. "There was a bit of a grudge carried into the next generation."

The "grudge" stemmed from a nasty boardroom feud, which led to John Sr. selling off his ownership interest in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. His partners were Ballard and Stafford Smythe.

When the end came for the Birmingham Bulls, Johnny F. Bassett couldn't help but be disappointed.

"He was equally disappointed when he had to leave Toronto and move the team to Birmingham," Susan added. "But he never looked backwards, he always moved forward."

Monday, October 5, 2015


Tonight, marks the 55th anniversary of former NHL referee, Ron Wicks, participating in his first big league contest. Ron started out working the lines, but later became a referee when the National Hockey League expanded in 1967.

The above scoring summary was published in The New York Times after Ron worked his first game on October 5, 1960. He is the youngest individual to ever wear a striped sweater in an NHL contest.

Earlier today, at the NHL Oldtimers lunch, many of Ron's colleagues gathered to celebrate his career. It was my honour to give a speech outlining several highlights from Ron's 26 years in the big show.

Pictured above are...

Front: Ron Wicks standing between his son, Brian, and Will Norris.

Back: (L to R) Bryan Lewis, Ron Hoggarth, Bruce Hood, Bob Hodges, Allan Glaspell, Ron Asselstine and Joe Bowen, the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

GIL MAYER: 1929-2015

The Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society has revealed that former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, Gil Mayer, has passed away at the age of 86.

Here is a link to a story I wrote on Gil Mayer back in 2011 - LINK

Mayer played the bulk of his career in the American Hockey League and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2007

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


While there was little controversy associated with Gerry McNamara's playing career, that all changed when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs front office. But it took time for the avalanche to make its way down the mountain.

Prior to getting back on the saddle, McNamara was employed by Wellinger & Dunn (equipment manufacturer) as their pro representative.

On his way home from a business trip, he stopped off in Sudbury, Ontario and made a call home.

"My wife said Jim Gregory had called and was looking for me, something about a scouting job," McNamara recalled of the conversation. "I could hardly sleep. I got up at five-o'clock in the morning and went back to Toronto."

The next step in the process was to meet with the Leafs general manager.

"I went down to see Jim Gregory and he offered me the job."

To this day, McNamara is thankful to have been given a chance to return to the game.

"It is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I was walking on air," McNamara proudly said. "Jimmy Gregory was the best thing that ever happened to me. He and Joe Kane."

In his new position, McNamara was given one task which led to his greatest find as a scout.

"Jimmy gave me the opportunity to be the special assignment scout, which gave me the opportunity to be called into his office and be told, 'Gerry, we want you to go over to Sweden and look at a goaltender'."

During his scouting mission in 1972-73 to Sweden, McNamara not only took a look at the goalie, but he came across two players who played for Brynas.

"I saw these players and I couldn't believe what I was watching. Inge Hammarstrom scored 5 goals and Borje Salming scored 2."

His chance to approach Salming came with three-minutes remaining in the third period. The native of Kiruna, Sweden was tossed from the game for making contact with the referee.

"Borje walked in front of me with the trainer and walked around the glass to the dressing room in the corner."

That is when McNamara made his move.

"I knocked on the dressing room door and the trainer opened it. I handed Borje my card and said, you play for the Toronto Maple Leafs."

Standing guard by the locker room, McNamara engaged Hammarstrom as he came off the ice. He delivered his pitch to the Brynas forward and arranged to talk later on the phone, as Hammarstrom had a better command of the English language than Salming.

"I told him that I thought both he and Borje could play for us and would they be interested. He said, 'yes', and I told him we would be in touch with him."

Not wanting to leave the door open for his competitors, McNamara called the Leafs hockey office and instructed them to add Salming and Hammarstrom to their protected list.

At the 1973 World Hockey Championships in Moscow, McNamara and chief scout, Bob Davidson, were on the prowl for additional talent. In addition to Salming and Hammarstrom, the Leafs had their eye on another Swede - Anders Hedberg.

To McNamara's dismay, things didn't go as planned.

"The only thing I'm disappointed in a little bit, Bob Davidson, and I don't mean to criticize him, but he didn't understand the Swedish mentality. One of the things you can't do is criticize the Swede's. They lose confidence in what their doing."

He provided an example of how Davidson's harsh tone may have influenced Hedberg.

"Davidson sat there and he talked to Hedberg. He asked him, 'what makes you think you can play for the Toronto Maple Leafs'?"

Based on this line of questioning, McNamara wasn't surprised when Hedberg didn't sign with Toronto.

On May 12, 1973, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom inked contracts with the Maple Leafs.

"I remember Johnny McLellan (the Leafs coach) saying to me over the summer, 'Gerry you better be right'," McNamara stated concerning his appraisal of the two imports. "Bob Davidson was sitting right there and never said a word. I was taking the heat, but I didn't care because I knew what they were going to show."

"I remember the first practice they skated in and the jaws dropped. They (the Leaf brass) couldn't believe what they were seeing. The way they could skate and the way they could handle the puck. At that time, those guy's could do things with the puck that we couldn't do."

Looking back over Salming's time in the NHL, McNamara talks like a proud dad.

"I think he is one of the all-time best defencemen that has ever played in the National Hockey League. I would take him anytime and maybe over anybody, except for Bobby Orr."

Under the direction of Jim Gregory and the coaching of Roger Neilson, the Leafs were steadily improving and upset the New York Islanders in the 1978 playoffs. But that all changed the following spring.

"Mr. Ballard's biggest mistake was that he fired Jim Gregory," McNamara pointed out. "Everything changed at the Gardens, then."

Gregory was dismissed following a first-round exit in the 1979 post-season. In his search for a replacement, Ballard turned to the past and hired Punch Imlach as his new general manager.

"I'm sure "King" (Clancy) probably talked Mr. Ballard into bringing him in. Punch was a disaster. He got rid of all the players. He traded Lanny McDonald out of spite because he couldn't trade Sittler."

On the eve of training camp in 1981, Imlach suffered a heart attack.

"I was over in St. Catharines at camp and Mike Nyklouk (the Leafs coach) sort of took over. I went back to the Gardens because I had some scouting stuff to do. I was sitting at my desk and Mr. Ballard came walking by."

His chat with Ballard produced a positive result, but ultimately his rise up the chain of command put him directly in the path of a roaring avalanche of controversy.

The Leaf owner, while offering McNamara a promotion, laid his cards on the table.

As McNamara explains it, Ballard told him, "Gerry I want you to take over and if you can't do it, I will bring in someone else that can do it." McNamara told the boss, "I can do it."

At the start, McNamara was named acting general manager and prior to the 1982-83 campaign the acting portion of the title was removed.

It was a time of highs and lows for McNamara.

"One of the things about Mr. Ballard was he never allowed me to hire my own coach."

As though ready for detractors, who would question him for agreeing to this, McNamara quickly defended his position.

"I know some of you might say how could you do that, but I loved my job. I loved where I was and I loved the money. I wasn't about to say no I don't agree with it and I quit. I said you own the club and you have the right do whatever you want with the club."

This didn't mean McNamara stayed clear of suggesting coaching changes to Ballard.

One potential coach McNamara had in mind is currently employed with the Maple Leafs.

"I thought of Lou Lamoriello, he was coaching in Providence and I had a relationship with him," McNamara said of Lamoriello, who was hired as the Leafs GM on July 23, 2015. "I mentioned him (to Ballard) and he replied that, ' I don't want any college coach in here coaching this team'. And that was the end of that. Lou doesn't know that, I never mentioned it to him."

Despite the restrictions imposed by a bombastic and interfering owner, McNamara is proud of his performance.

"I grew into the job and I think I did a darn fine job if I must say so myself."

He pointed out his ability to evaluate young talent.

"Go take a look at my drafts and take a look at the drafts since I left. Tell me that we didn't draft well. In my last draft, six players went to the National Hockey League - Richardson (Luke), Marios (Daniel), McIntyre (John), Sacco (Joe), Eastwood (Mike) and Rhodes (Damian)."

One of the best junior players selected by McNamara was Wendel Clark in the 1985 Draft held in Toronto.

"I was enamoured by Wendel Clark," McNamara said of Clark, who is one of the most popular players ever to wear a Leaf uniform. "I didn't like the way he was up ice all night. I said to myself there is no way he was going to play defence for us. I'm going to make him a forward. He could shoot the puck, skate and he was tough. He had no sense of danger when it came to carrying the puck."

Once Clark arrived in Toronto, McNamara knew he had a gem.

"He made a world of difference to our team. He made the other players better. He made them tougher. And pound for pound, as tough as a guy as I've ever seen. Wendel Clark's not a big guy, but he took on everybody."

Not mentioning a name, McNamara revealed that someone in the hockey department wanted to take Craig Simpson over Clark.

"I said, I'll tell you what, it's my neck on the line. I'm going to make the decision this time and we're taking Wendel."

Gerry McNamara's run as general manager came to an end on February 7, 1988. His downfall came when he lost a power struggle with John Brophy, who coached the Leafs at the time.

"We needed a change and I spoke up," McNamara told reporters after getting the boot. "I did battle inside. I had to fight. I thought I could convince Ballard, but I lost."

No longer pinned against the ropes, McNamara came out swinging.

"I didn't have the authority to hire or fire coaches, so don't pin the won-and-lost record on me."

As sometimes happens, a story can take on a life of its own and involve innocent parties. In McNamara's case, he wanted to set the record straight on a couple of tales where he is falsely mentioned.

McNamara returned to scouting after getting his walking papers from Ballard. As a member of the Calgary Flames staff, he won a Stanley Cup in 1989. He wanted to make it clear he never recommended to the Flames that they make the Doug Gilmour-to-Toronto deal on January 2, 1992. When crunch time came, McNamara was on the road and couldn't reach a phone to voice his opinion.

On another matter, McNamara stated he had nothing to do with the 1972 scouting report on Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The report supplied to Team Canada indicated that Tretiak couldn't stop a balloon.

"Johnny McLellan and Bob Davidson went to see Tretiak," he said in identifying the two responsible for the miscalculation.

A tall man, McNamara stood up after his lengthy talk and took advantage of the chance to move about. He seemed pleased to have taken a trip down memory lane and at the same time straighten out some curves in the road along the way.