Saturday, August 15, 2015

GUS MORTSON: 1925-2015

For the second time this summer, Leaf Nation has lost one of their hockey legends.

In late June, they mourned the passing of Wally Stanowski, who held the honour of being the oldest living former Toronto Maple Leaf at the age of 96.

Then, on August 8, the news broke that former Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson had passed away at the age of 90.

Scouted and signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mortson quickly worked his way up to the National Hockey League. He played his junior hockey with the Toronto St. Michael's Majors ('43-'44 & '44-'45), then the Leafs sent him to Tulsa (USHL) to play for the Oilers in 1945-46.

His big break came in October 1946.

After a brilliant year with Tulsa, where he recorded 48 points in 51 games, Mortson was assigned to the Pittsburgh Hornets training camp roster in the autumn of 1946. The Hornets played in the American Hockey League and were Toronto's main farm team.

During the week of October 8, the Hornets participated in back-to-back exhibition games to prepare for the upcoming season.

On Monday night they faced the Tulsa Oilers at Jock Harty Arena in Kingston, Ontario. In a close affair the Hornets edged Tulsa 6-5.

The next night, Mortson and the Hornets tangled with the Maple Leafs at the Barton Street Arena in Hamilton, Ontario. This time around, Pittsburgh was defeated as the Maple Leafs came out on top with a 4-1 victory.

During these two exhibition encounters Gus Mortson's play didn't go unnoticed by those running the Maple Leafs, in particular, Leaf bench boss, Hap Day.

In his game story following the Hamilton game, Bunny Morganson of The Toronto Telegram, wrote that Mortson, "...has earned a thorough trial with the Leafs for that fifth and extra defence position." Also, he noted, "...the Leafs' management received glowing reports of the big fellow's peppy play for the Hornets' 6-5 win over Tulsa in Kingston on Monday night."

Paired with Jimmy Thomson on the Leafs blueline, Mortson made his National Hockey League debut  when Toronto opened their regular season in Detroit on October 16, 1946.

Gordon Walker of the Toronto Daily Star wrote that the Mortson-Thomson duo, "...showed well (and) didn't allow a goal while they were on the ice." The Leafs and Red Wings skated to a 3-3 tie.

Mortson made the most of his opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs and remained in the NHL from 1946-47 to 1958-59.

A couple of days after Gus Mortson's passing, I had the chance to chat with Johnny McCormack about his former teammate and friend.

"He was probably my closest friend," McCormack said of Mortson. "We roomed together at St. Mike's, Tulsa Oklahoma, in Toronto and Chicago. So, I had a lot of exposure to him and I was really blessed to have him as a friend."

Like most, when asked to describe Mortson's style of play, McCormack keyed in on one aspect.

"His strength," McCormack replied without hesitation. "He was one tough dude."

Mortson was given the nickname "Old Hardrock" because of the toughness he displayed on the ice. His use of physical force often resulted in nagging injuries. However, they didn't prevent him from playing through the pain.

"If anything, he taught me how to play hurt," McCormack proudly stated of the standard set by Mortson.

His ability to play a contact game and not let injuries slow him down came in handy when you were part of a team coached by Hap Day.

"Never play the puck, always play the man," Mortson once said of the defensive system employed by Day. "If the other team had the puck in our end, the idea was to knock down anybody who skated in front of the net. Never leave a man standing up."

Another dimension of Mortson's game may come as a surprise, taking into account his reputation as a rugged competitor. As McCormack put it, "he was one of the most graceful skaters."

Like his talent for dishing out crushing hits and remaining off the injured list, Mortson's skating and puck handling skills helped him to stay out of Day's doghouse.

Mortson explained what was demanded of a defenceman by Hap Day when a face-off took place in Toronto's zone.

"If the face-off was in our end, the centre got the draw back to a defenceman, he carried it up the ice, and the forwards' job was to take out the other team's forwards."

 When teamed with Jimmy Thomson,  the task of lugging the puck up ice belonged to the smooth-skating Mortson.

Highlights from Gus Mortson's career included a Memorial Cup championship with St. Mike's in 1945 and four Stanley Cups - 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951 - with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was named to the First All-Star Team in 1949-50 and played in seven other NHL All-Star Games.

In addition to Toronto, Mortson spent time with the Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Red Wings.

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