Hockey Hall of Famer and former Leafs GM Jim Gregory dies at 83

Flames and Maple Leafs great Lanny McDonald discusses what former Toronto GM Jim Gregory meant to him, and why he was always one of his favourite people.

TORONTO — Struggling to find traction early in his career, Lanny McDonald remembers being summoned into Jim Gregory’s office at Maple Leaf Gardens.

McDonald, the No. 4 pick in the 1973 draft, had dominated junior hockey, but was finding the sledding much tougher with Toronto in the NHL.

Gregory wasn’t worried about the player’s production — the Leafs’ general manager was concerned about the person.

"He was unbelievably patient and kind," McDonald recalled of the Hockey Hall of Famer. "I was struggling like crazy. He would ask, ‘Are you doing OK? I don’t want to trade you, but if it gets too tough here, I want you to be happy. But I’m not trading you.’ I’d tell him I would find a way to get through this.

"I owe him everything career-wise."

Gregory, who served 10 years as Leafs’ GM before spending decades as an NHL executive, died Wednesday. He was 83.

A league official told The Associated Press that Gregory died at his home in Toronto. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Gregory was promoted to GM of the Leafs at age 33 in 1969 and was among the first NHL managers to sign and import players from Europe, including Hall of Fame defenceman Borje Salming.

He also drafted a trio of future Hall of Famers — McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Tiger Williams.

"He was very instrumental in putting a really good team together," Sittler said. "We were all young guys that grew under his guidance. He was just a wonderful man."

McDonald said he doesn’t know what would have happened in his career if Gregory and former Leafs head coach Red Kelly, who died in May at age 91, hadn’t been in his corner.

"He would treat people the way you loved to be treated — with respect and understanding," said McDonald, who visited Gregory with Sittler recently. "But more than that, it was the kind of person he was and the kind of team player he was. Jim didn’t care who got the credit. Jim cared about the final result and about the team.

"That would come through loud and clear each and every day."

The Leafs qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs eight times during Gregory’s tenure, but he was fired by mercurial owner Harold Ballard after Toronto was swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1979 quarterfinals.

"When that Leafs team got torn apart, it was so sad," McDonald said. "Jim had built that team and we all believed we might have been one or two players away.

"It was a sad day when he was no longer with us, but the good news was he had 30 years with the NHL. The respect that people showed him all around the league tells you a lot about what the guy was made of."

The league hired Gregory as its director of Central Scouting shortly after his dismissal from the Leafs. He was named executive director of hockey operations in 1986 and later became a senior vice-president.

"It is impossible to express the extent to which the National Hockey League family adored Jim Gregory and the loss we feel as a result of his passing," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "Jim was one of the first to welcome me to the NHL almost 27 years ago and I have treasured his friendship and relied upon his wisdom every day since. Nobody loved the game more. Nobody ever served it better. We will miss him terribly."

Born in Port Colborne, Ont., on Nov. 4, 1935, Gregory grew up in nearby Dunnville and moved to Toronto to attend St. Michael’s College School in 1953.

He won the Memorial Cup as general manager of St. Michael’s Majors in 1961 and as coach of the Toronto Marlboros in 1964. Gregory then assumed a managerial role with the Marlboros and guided them to the Memorial Cup again in 1967.

The Leafs hired Gregory to coach their minor league affiliate in Vancouver for the 1967-68 season before he started scouting for Toronto.

A year later, he was handed the Leafs’ top job.

"I was sorry to hear that he had passed away, but I was also sorry that he had to be the GM (in Toronto) during some turbulent times under Harold Ballard and that he’d had to go through that," Sittler said. "I was also so happy that he got a job in hockey with the NHL.

"He was involved in the game his whole life."

Known around the sport as "Mr. Gregory," he served as chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee from 1998-2014 and was a fixture at the draft, Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and other league events. He’d hand out silver sticks to players for reaching 1,000 games played, present new Hall of Famers their rings and call names on the second day of the draft.

"He was always a good communicator, he was always a guy that cared about people," Sittler said. "He just loved what he did."

McDonald said when he took over as chairman as the Hall of Fame, Gregory was there to mentor him, just as he had back in the mid-1970s.

"He was looking after me all over again," McDonald said. "I have the greatest respect for him."

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