Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
A sad-looking soul with a whiff of alcohol on his breath hanging around outside a rink. Not an entirely foreign sight in Canada. But a former NHL scoring champion standing outside Maple Leaf Gardens, selling the used—broken, by some accounts—sticks of Maple Leafs? Not what you’d call an everyday occurrence.
That man was Harvey “Busher” Jackson, one of the best Leafs of all time, one of the best players ever, and one of the saddest stories in NHL history. Jackson was the flashiest player on the flashiest line of his time. He broke into the NHL in 1929 at 18, the youngest player in the league. He was brash and cocksure, refusing team trainer Tim Daly’s request that he help carry sticks. “You’re nothing but a young busher!” Daly scolded the rookie. The name stuck. Jackson was quickly united with Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher. The trio dominated hockey for much of the ’30s, and Jackson was their engine. Smooth and slick, he was an effortless skater with scoring touch, the perfect player for the dawn of the forward-passing era.
Jackson won the NHL scoring title in ’32, the same year Toronto won its first Stanley Cup under the Maple Leafs banner. He was a perennial all-star. The first NHLer to score a hat trick in a single playoff period and, in ’34, he scored four goals in the third against the St. Louis Eagles, the single best period in league history to that point. In 1998, The Hockey News named Jackson the 55th greatest player in NHL history. In 2010, the sixth-best left-winger of all time.
A star on the ice, Jackson was hell-bent on being one off it as well. The Kid Line was the toast of Toronto, and the gregarious, good-looking kid who grew up hardscrabble in Toronto’s west end drank it up. He was a man about town, a playboy who never wanted for good times. Hockey’s answer to Babe Ruth. He was larger than life.
Living as hard away from the ice as he played on it, Jackson spent most everything he earned. Friends pleaded with him to squirrel away some money. Conn Smythe—one of the NHL’s first and few Titans—even offered to match him dollar for dollar. It never happened.
In 1939, Smythe, exasperated by Jackson’s off-ice antics, traded him to the New York Americans. After two disappointing seasons he moved to Boston. By 1944, he was out of hockey. His life quickly fell apart. Beset by alcoholism, he burned through two marriages and was charged several times with assaulting or stalking his second wife, eventually convicted of what is now criminal harassment. He borrowed money from friends and twice declared bankruptcy. He ended up broke, alone, homeless and well-known to police. Jackson died in 1966.
Through it all, Conn Smythe played the role of Jackson’s personal saviour and moral compass. Smythe had a soft spot in his heart for his former superstar. He gave him odd jobs because he couldn’t hold one of his own—hence the used sticks—and squared some of Jackson’s debts. “Conn Smythe was good to Busher,” says Bob Baun, who spent 11 seasons with the Leafs in the ’50s and ’60s. “Conn was disappointed in him, but he still seemed to go to bat for him.”
To a point.
“Busher Jackson was a wife beater,” Smythe said in 1973, two years after Jackson’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction. “He was thrown in and out of jail a dozen times. He didn’t work and never paid for anything.” That was how the Hall’s chairman explained his resignation. Smythe championed “integrity and character” as prerequisites. Jackson was unfit.
Great Leafs of later generations were awed and saddened by Jackson. They knew his legend, the good and the bad. “I only met him once,” says Johnny Bower of a chance encounter over coffee. “I was with George Armstrong at the Maple Leaf Gardens Inn. I said, ‘Congratulations. You’re a great man.’ And he just looked at me. I don’t know if he was under the weather or trying to sober up.”