Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
It was February and it was cold. The kind of cold that’s better suited to a game of shinny than a high-speed trip down a Canadian highway in an exotic Italian sports car.
The call came across the police radio shortly after 4 a.m. A white De Tomaso Pantera had been spotted in Burlington on the Queen Elizabeth Way, streaking around the frozen shores of Lake Ontario and heading fast toward the American border.
Sixty kilometres away, Mike Gula, an OPP constable, sat in his cruiser. He knew there was a reckless driver heading his way and he was waiting for him to cross his stretch of highway. Gula could hear him coming, 330 horsepower screaming through the night at 210 km/h. The constable flipped on his sirens and gave chase but within moments the De Tomaso was gone.
He never saw the white sports car lift from the road, flip over and over, or land on its roof in the middle of the highway. But moments later, as he came upon the wreckage, he glimpsed the driver lying in the ditch. His neck was broken, skull fractured. A broken bottle of vodka and a pocketful of pills lay scattered among the debris. The greatest defenceman to ever don a Maple Leafs sweater was dead.
It wasn’t yet sunrise when a groggy Joe Crozier, coach of the Buffalo Sabres, received a call from police. “There’s been an accident,” they told him. “It’s Tim Horton. I need you to identify the body.” Before long Crozier was standing in a St. Catharines police station searching for the courage to look at the remains of the man who, 12 hours earlier, had been the third star in his last game in the NHL. Unsure how he would inform his player’s widow and four daughters of all that had happened, he left the police station and went to a fledgling doughnut shop to gather his thoughts.
The woman at the Tim Hortons counter recognized the Sabres coach immediately. “My boss played one hell of a game tonight,” she said.
“Yes,” Crozier replied. “He did.”
Never again would Tim Horton be remembered more for his on-ice accomplishments than for the way he died or for the doughnut shops he left behind.
Born into poverty in Northern Ontario at the onset of the Great Depression, Horton grew up dreaming of one day leaving the ponds of his youth and making it in the NHL. Built like an oversized blacksmith, he went on to protect the Leafs blueline for 18 years, manhandling opponents with his body (but never his fists) and blocking shots with every part of his being, including his face when the need arose.
A six-time all-star and four-time Stanley Cup winner, Horton stood just five-foot-ten but was 210-lb. of solid muscle twisted around a skeleton that could withstand more punishment than any other player of his generation. Renowned by his opponents for the rib-shattering bear hug he’d deliver to those who dared take a swing at any of his teammates, Horton amassed 458 points in a Leafs career that spanned 1,185 games, including a record 486 consecutive regular-season games between 1961 and 1968.
The first NHLer to wear contact lenses on the ice, his former teammates remain in awe of his ability to play the puck given that he was often unable to even see it. “You could always depend on him,” remembers Frank Mahovlich, who played with Horton for 11 years in Toronto. “He was strong, moved everybody away from the net. He was a great defensive defenceman but he could also carry the puck up the ice. Every once in a while I’d get upset at him not passing me the puck and Allan Stanley would say, ‘Shut up! He can’t see!’ So I’d keep quiet.”
A natural leader in the Leafs dressing room, Horton was an ox who could drag the team behind him during the early and mid-’60s. Long-time coach and friend Punch Imlach once recounted that “Horton, more than any other player, was the key to those glory days.”
Bob Baun and those privileged enough to play by Horton’s side remember him as a generous man who exhausted more time and energy looking out for those around him than he did on himself. “He wouldn’t spend a nickel to see the Pope go down Yonge Street on a white horse,” says Baun. “But he’d give it to his wife or kids.”
Playing in the Stanley Cup Final with an aging Leafs team in 1967, Horton once spoke of his love of the game in an emotional interview on Hockey Night in Canada while reflecting on watching his teammate, George Armstrong, score the last playoff goal of his career. “There were tears starting to go down my cheeks,” he said. “When you’re a hockey player this is what you live for.”
Among the last of the Leafs’ dynastic lineup, Horton was 16 years older than any other defenceman on the team when he departed for the New York Rangers near the end of the 1969–70 season. Then, after stints in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, he was ready to retire and concentrate on running the 39 doughnut shops that bore his name across southwestern Ontario, but he was lured back to the Sabres for one more season by Imlach, then the Sabres GM, who offered him that white Italian sports car as a signing bonus.
But at 44, he was no longer able to drag his teammates along as he once could. The game had exacted a toll on his body and he had become dependent on alcohol and pills to numb his many ailments.
He suffered his last injury just days before his death. A fractured jaw, courtesy of a puck to the face during practice. His face was still bruised and swollen when he jumped into his car and ventured north from Buffalo to Maple Leaf Gardens for one final game in front of the fans who had cheered for him throughout his career. He froze his jaw, laced up his skates and took to the ice for two periods before the pain forced him to leave in the third only to be called back once more as the third star of the game. Then he left the Gardens, got back in his car and made off into the night.
Some say he died the way he played—moving fast, fighting pain and squinting into the corners.
The doughnut shops only tell a fraction of his story. The death certificate, even less. “Lost control of car at high speed.”