Thursday, December 29, 2011

Johnny Wilson: 1929-2011

The Original Six era has lost another player with the news of Johnny Wilson's passing. He passed away on December 27, 2011 at the age of 82.

His nephew, Ron Wilson, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, broke the news of Wilson's death on Twitter. "My uncle, Johnny Wilson, passed away this morning at 82 yrs. He was a warrior thru & thru, right to the end. Our family will miss him dearly," wrote Wilson.

Johnny Wilson's long journey to the National Hockey League began on February 18, 1947. While playing in a high school game with his brother Larry, several scouts took note of Johnny's performance. Representing the Detroit Red Wings was Marcel Cote, who just happened to be refereeing the contest. Planted in the crowd was JoJo Grabowski, who scouted for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Following the game, Cote approached Johnny Wilson with the intention of signing him for the Wings. It was agreed they would meet later to further discuss the matter. While Cote was dressing after the game, Grabowski scooped in and took Wilson for a taxi ride. He made his case for the Leafs and Wilson was impressed the NHL club would spend the coin on a taxi just to talk with him.

Detroit's efforts were fruitless as Toronto had already posted Wilson's name on their negotiation list. However, Detroit did add Larry Wilson to their list.

The next step in the process for Toronto was to land Wilson's signature on a "C" form. All attempts in this regard failed as Johnny Wilson's only desire was to continue playing with his brother. In 1947-48 both Johnny and Larry played for the Windsor Spitfires in the OHA.

With two different NHL clubs owning their rights, another brother act would come into play to bring the Wilson brothers under one umbrella. The Leafs, hitting a brick wall each time they tried to sign Johnny Wilson, decided to take action. Dusty Blair, already part of the Leafs organization, had a brother named Chuck in the Detroit chain. Toronto made a deal with the Red Wings, sending Johnny Wilson to Detroit in exchange for Chuck Blair. Thus, each brother combination was reunited - the Blair's in Toronto and Wilson's in the Motor City.

Johnny Wilson turned pro in the 1949-50 campaign with the Omaha Knights in the USHL. He produced 41 goals in 70 games and added 39 assists for 80 points. During the regular season, both Johnny and Larry were called-up by Detroit to play in one contest against the Hawks in Chicago Stadium.

Jack Adams, Detroit's general manager, summoned Wilson for the Wings post-season play in 1950. The Wings swept all 8 games playoff games and Johnny Wilson won his first of four Stanley Cups.

In addition to playing for Detroit, Wilson skated with Chicago, Toronto and the New York Rangers. He participated in 688 NHL contests, scoring 161 goals and 171 assists for 332 points.

An example of his durability came when he set the consecutive games played record of 580. This covered a stretch of 8 NHL seasons.

When his playing career came to an end, Wilson tried his hand at coaching. In the National Hockey League, he paced behind the benches in Los Angeles, Detroit, Colorado and Pittsburgh.

John Edward Wilson was born on June 14, 1929 in Kincardine, Ontario.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Gift that keeps on Giving

Being a hockey fan,  one of  the joys of Christmas is receiving a wrapped book under the tree or a magazine stuffed in your Christmas stocking.

In 1955, a loyal fan would have been entertained for hours by this edition of BLUELINE (the original hockey monthly).

Sunday, December 25, 2011


This vintage cover from 1947 wraps-up the sentiment of the season - MERRY CHRISTMAS to One and All!!!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A B-ball and Hockey Gathering

For the first portion of their schedule, the National Hockey League has been the only show in cities where they share an existence with NBA franchises. Due to a labour dispute, the round-ball season was put on hold as players and owners wouldn't budge from their negotiating positions. The lull in activity provided the opportunity for NHL clubs to bask in the spotlight and secure media coverage which often fell to their National Basketball Association counterparts. In today's competitive marketplace, the two often engage in battle for consumer dollars and media attention.

On October 15, 1953 the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics shared the limelight during a luncheon put on by the Boston Chamber of Commerce at the Sheraton-Plaza Hotel. It was the first in their history the hockey club was honoured in such a manner. Team members were introduced by Fred Cusick who served as the play-by-play announcer for the Bruins.

Addressing the crowd on behalf of the National Hockey League was president Clarence Campbell. "Not so long back there was the possibility Boston would cease to hold its ranking as a leading sports city. People began taking sports too much for granted. Sports are great for business. And those magic figures of 13,909 who appeared for the opening game, proved the best possible evidence that interest is reviving," Campbell told the assembled masses.

Captain Milt Schmidt, who sat beside Celtic Bob Cousy, received nothing but praise when Cusick turned his attention to the Bruins superstar. "There just aren't enough adjectives to describe him," the voice of Bruins hockey imparted to those in attendance.

With the end of labour disruption in the NBA, the Bruins and Celtics will once again share centre stage in the city of Boston. The condensed and busy schedule for the Celtics will result in little time for luncheons with their brethren from the NHL.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It Must Run In The Family

Congratulations to Toronto Sun Baseball scribe Bob Elliott on his induction into the media wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. On December 6, he was named winner of the Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He is the first Canadian writer to join this prestigious group.

Reading material on Bob, it is interesting to note he isn't the first member of the Elliott family to reach Hall of Fame status in a big league organization. This honour was first bestowed upon his grandfather Edwin "Chaucer" Elliott.

Ed Elliott

The elder Elliott played sports while studying medicine at Queen's University. A two-sport athlete, he played both football and hockey while attending school. In 1899, he won a hockey title with the Kingston Granites. Following his time in University, Elliott put together a semi-pro baseball team in Kingston. In 1906, Elliott coached the Toronto Argonauts and later in the campaign won a championship with Hamilton over McGill. This was followed by a stint with Montreal's AAA team as coach and subsequent role as an advisor. In 1911, he was appointed manager of the St. Thomas baseball club. A Toronto Sun article pointed out Elliott played on the diamond with the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team.

His claim to fame in the sports world came in hockey as an on-ice official. His participation as a referee came in 1903. During his time in this capacity with the OHA, Elliott gained the reputation as being a solid referee who knew the rules of the game and how to implement them.

Ed Elliott passed away in 1913 suffering from cancer. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Fine Penalty Killing Duo

Last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell 4-2 to Washington with all the four goals coming on the power-play. It represented the most power-play goals given-up by Toronto in one contest since the 2009-10 season.

When the Maple Leafs opened the 1954-55 hockey campaign, their main duo for working on the penalty kill was Rudy Migay and Ron Stewart.

Rudy Migay

Ron Stewart

Early in the year, these two not only helped out on the penalty kill, but lead the team in scoring. At the top of the list was Stewart with four goals. Right behind him was Migay with three.
On November 6, 1954 in a game against Chicago, Migay produced not one, but two shorthanded goals, a rare feat for the day. Migay scored his first shorthanded tally in the middle frame. Migay and Stewart went to work after teammate Parker MacDonald was assessed a minor penalty for high-sticking. The goal came about when Stewart picked-up a rebound off the end-boards and sent the puck to a wide open Migay. Known as the "Toy Terrier", Migay's shot beat Chicago goalie Al Rollins.

His second marker on special teams came with Stewart in the box serving an interference penalty in period three. Migay took a pass from Hugh Bolton which sent him in the clear. Rollins, gave up a rebound on the  initial shot, but Migay buried the rebound.

Toronto defeated the visitors by a score of 5-2. Another highlight came when rookie Parker MacDonald scored his first National Hockey League goal to open the scoring in period two.

Rudy Migay, played his first NHL game with the Maple Leafs on December 1, 1949. His entire time in the Original Six era, 10 seasons, was spent with Toronto. In 418 games, Migay notched 59 goals and 92 assists for 151 points. He accumulated 293 penalty-minutes. He participated in 15 post-season matches, scoring one goal and registering 20 penalty-minutes.

Now, if only the current Toronto club could have as much success on the penalty kill.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maple Leaf Gardens: A Mysterious Disappearance

Last week, I met a friend at the Loblaws store in Maple Leaf Gardens for a beverage prior to proceeding to a function held downtown.

While waiting outside, I walked around the building to observe any changes since the opening last month. From a construction point-of-view, most of the work is now restricted to the Wood Street side.

As the above photo reveals, interior construction is now in progress on the third floor. Scaffolding and debris removal equipment extend to the upper level just east of the delivery bay. The space is being renovated to house the hockey rink and athletic facility for Ryerson University.

Making my rounds, something didn't look right as I walked along Carlton Street. I had more time to digest the exterior alterations, as my last visit focused on the Loblaws opening and the brilliant retro marquee. After pacing back and forth several times in front of 60 Carlton, I came to the conclusion my eyes were not deceiving me. The object of my search was nowhere to be found. Then, questions started filtering through my thought process. Where did it go? Was it damaged? What would the motive be to abandon or cover-up such an important part of history?

Anytime I strolled past Maple Leaf Gardens, I would take the time to glance down and look at the lower portion of the building at one particular spot. The approximate location was a short distance away from the intersection of Church and Carlton. During my visit last week, I discovered the cornerstone had vanished quicker than a Charlie Conacher blast off the right wing.

The unveiling of the cornerstone took place on the afternoon of September 21, 1931. The list of hockey people attending the dedication was impressive. In addition to J.P. Bickell, Conn Smythe and the rest of the Gardens Board of Directors, the National Hockey League was represented by president Frank Calder. On hand were executives from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the Ontario Hockey Association. Also, local hockey organizations attended the festivities. The ceremonial honours went to Lieutenant-Governor W.D. Ross.

Speaking to the Lieutenant-Governor, Bickell told those assembled that Maple Leaf Gardens "might be regarded as a civic institution rather than a commercial venture, because its object is to foster and promote the healthy recreation of the people of this British and sport-loving city."

Bickell's wish for the use and heritage of the building certainly has survived the ravages of time. Sure, the Gardens has been referred to as the Cash Box on Carlton Street during the Harold Ballard era, but no building in the city of Toronto has been so loved by its citizens. For that matter, the entire Nation. Many visiting Toronto would make the hockey palace their first stop when heading out to explore their surroundings. Thanks to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Foster Hewitt, it became a Canadian Institution.

As the long crowds waiting outside for the opening of Loblaws would indicate, the Gardens hasn't lost its luster to be a major attraction. Taking into account the words spoken by J.P. Bickell, the building will be experiencing the best of two worlds, commercial and civic, once the renovations have been completed. The retail outlets being the commercial aspect of the new venture and Ryerson being the civic side. Although it will no longer house an NHL squad, there is little doubt many of the curious will converge on the site to view the Ryerson Rams performing under the original domed roof. If Loblaws is a major draw, one can only imagine the impact and demand for tickets to sit and once again watch hockey action in this iconic structure.

As for the present status of the cornerstone, one can only hope it hasn't fallen victim to a construction mishap or neglect. It was alarming to see the area in question encased in cement, but this casing could have been put in place to protect the cornerstone during the construction phase. Also, there could be a concerted effort to keep it out of public view and out of the reach of vandals. If this is so, it doesn't make much sense. For 80-years it has been in place and visible to all who desired to inspect it.

Early in the process, the cornerstone was boxed in by wooden planks to shelter it from work being conducted. As same was completed, the cornerstone reappeared, however, is once again hidden from view. The above noted photo of the cornerstone was taken on January 3, 2011.

The photo below, showing the spot in question guarded from the elements, was shot on September 25, 2010.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Maple Leaf Gardens: A New Life

As the lyrics to the Dinah Washington classic tune states, "what a difference a day makes."

This certainly is applicable when examining the renovations at Maple Leaf Gardens. As pointed out previously, the interior makeover has been shielded from traffic within the neighbourhood. Also, it appears as though a portion of the exterior work was delayed to coincide with the opening of Loblaws on the main level.

Developments started to heat-up during the week of November 21st, when work was being conducted on the domed roof. On November 23rd, the Maple Leaf logo was removed from the roof. As the exterior of the building comes under heritage protection, it was not necessary for the Leaf emblem to disappear. It was placed on the structure in the 1980s during the Harold Ballard regime. For some reason, the powers-in-charge has elected not to return the insignia to the top of 60 Carlton Street.

On the same morning, came an installation which was powerful enough to stop one in their tracks. Think of a driver behind the wheel of his or her vehicle slamming on the brakes to avoid a wayward child in their path. Walking along Carlton Street took on the feel of being in a time warp. It is a moment, once you have come to a complete halt, where you look away and give your head a shake. Then, peer-up once again, hoping the initial glance wasn't a figment of your imagination. At this point it all sinks in. It is like seeing an old friend who comes back into your life after an extended absence. In this case, the old pal is the marquee covering the main entrance to the iconic edifice. And believe me; I'm not exaggerating the impact this has on anyone with an appreciation for history.

One word can be used to describe the new marquee - stunning! Under the direction of ERA Architects, who specialize in heritage architecture, the final product is both eye pleasing and appropriate. Project Architect, William MacIvor, nailed this one by selecting the correct era on which to base adaptive reuse of the marquee. Having written in the past about the marquee, it is of significant interest and is often referred to as being the face of Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Gardens marquee. Photographed on Nov. 30, 2011.

MacIvor, who obtained a Masters degree in architecture while attending Dalhousie University, wrote about the process in his blog. His entry following the installation provided insight into how things came together. "The original canopy from 1931 did not include the lightbox (which was added in the following decade), and the marquee has been subsequently modified numerous times over the life of the building." MacIvor explained the original drawings dating back to 1931 were engaged to provide vital information.

The lettering of - Maple Leaf Gardens - "was painstakingly recreated from historical photographs," wrote MacIvor. This certainly was achieved and is clearly evident when viewing an image from a by-gone-era. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and the photographic evidence in his blog confirms how accurate the reproduction is when compared to the past.

In what appears to be a gathering of Leaf captains, the above photo seems to date back to the late 1950s. On the extreme right is Sid Smith, who wore the captains "C" during the 1955-56 campaign. The first individual on the left is Hap Day, who holds the honour of being the first Leaf captain. Thus, it isn't a stretch to determine the approximate circa of the photo. An examination of the picture demonstrates how precisely the replica matches the one behind Conn Smythe and company.

Upon choosing a design, the next step was to pitch his vision. In this regard, MacIvor wrote, "it was decided in consultation with municipal staff from Heritage Preservation Services to restore the signature element to its iconic, longest running version; the one which is most clearly defined in the public consciousness."

Having viewed the final product last week, I was staggered by this new addition to the Carlton Street landscape. There is little doubt the new/old design has brought new life to the building. I observed many people, young and old, taking the time to look-up and take in the marquee. At night, with the lights switched on, it is absolutely striking! Watching the shopping crowd coming and going, it seemed as though the wonderful sights and sounds of a Toronto Maple Leaf game night had returned. Memories of a large hockey crowd flooding out of the Gardens following another evening of NHL action flashed before me.

The marquee at night

The following week, there was another explosion of important news pertaining to the 80-year-old building which opened on November 12, 1931 with the Maple Leafs playing host to Chicago.

First-up was Ryerson University with a preview of their new rink on November 29th. Neatly tucked under the dome, the space will seat 2,600 spectators and will resemble a miniature version of the original bowel. It will be known as Mattamy Home Ice after the company owned by major financial contributor Peter Gilgan. It will serve as the new home of the Ryerson Rams hockey team. Future work is expected to be completed by spring of 2012.

Next on tap was the opening of Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens on November 30th. The grocery store takes in 85,000 square feet and devours the entire first floor. I was fortunate enough to be part of a tour conducted by Mario Fatica who is Vice President, Planning development & Approvals for Loblaws. Right off the bat, I informed Fatica my main interest was the hockey/historical aspects of the renovations.

However, I can't help but comment on the vast variety of products and services available to the public. From a consumer point-of-view, the store will definitely be an asset to the community. In addition to providing enough food to feed an army, there is a pharmacy, in-sore dietitian and medical clinic.

The first visual relating to hockey is found near the escalators, located to the right as you enter via the corner doors at Church and Carlton. Affixed to the east wall is a huge blue Maple Leaf. The Loblaws press release describes the artwork as a "three dimensional sculpture created from stadium chairs." This is a nice touch and pays tribute to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leaf sculpture
 Prior to making my way into Loblaws, I soaked in a view of the exterior from the south-side of Carlton. Ducking around traffic, I got a clear look at the entrance. Immediately, I recalled vintage photos of the United Cigar Store, an inaugural tenant at Maple Leaf Gardens. United Cigar Store first appeared as part of the new hockey palace in the 1932 Toronto city directory. The exact location being 438 Church Street at the corner of Church and Carlton. The following pictures tell the tale between 1931 and 2011.

Church and Carlton - 1930s

Church and Carlton - 2011

From the same vantage point, by the escalators, one can focus on several other historical related features incorporated into the Loblaws store. As the interior was stripped bare to accommodate renovations, original concrete walls are now in full view. Old light fixtures which hung above ice level have been put back into operation. Storefront windows have been designed to mirror as closely as possible those from the past.

Contained within is a cafe/canteen for hungry and thirsty shoppers to take a break and contemplate their next move. In these ares, there are a couple of things to capture the eye of hockey fans. Depicted on one wall is a replica of artist John Richmond's mural which was located in the Gardens lobby. In 1994, the piece was put up to pay "homage to historical moments and star players." Since the wall on which the original was created on fell victim to the gutting process, photographs were reviewed to obtain accuracy in the reproduction.

After finding a table under the mural, one can rest their weary bones on a gold or red seat salvaged from when the Leafs vacated the premises.

The counter tops to a number of tables contain historical photos under glass. While munching on a treat or savoring a fine beverage, a history lesson is readily available.

As we reached aisle 25, Mario Fatica pointed to a red circle on the floor. My first impression was a painter, in a hurry to finish last minute touch-ups, over filled his tray and there was no time to correct the mishap. This thought quickly vanished as our tour guide articulated the significance of this circle. At that moment, Mario and I were standing at the exact location where thousands of face-offs took place to start thousands of hockey games. Yes, we were firmly planted at centre ice in the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Once told this, my first move was to get a sense of my surroundings relative to the previous layout. To my right, the player benches and the penalty box to my left. Gazing straight ahead, I conjured-up the image of goalie Glenn Hall going through his pre-game rituals prior to the puck drop for period one. Returning to reality, I was looking south and could see the new windows exposing Carlton Street.

Marking centre ice in the old Gardens

Perhaps fueled by my nostalgic journey back to the Original Six era and preparing to face-off against Stan Mikita and the Hawks, several suggestions came to mind. Without hesitation, I passed them onto Mr. Fatica.

Noticing the second floor - home to Joe Fresh, LCBO and President's Choice Cooking School - Foster Hewitt's broadcasting location popped into my head. How about a reproduction of the Hockey Night in Canada gondola, allowing shoppers to glance-up and see a tribute to a broadcasting and hockey pioneer?

Throughout the Loblaws store a great amount of signage is done in stenciling. This form of lettering was very popular in the early years of Maple Leaf Gardens. I recommended to Fatica that the name of each Street - Carlton, Church and Wood - be stenciled on the applicable wall. In a way, this could make the store seem more intimate and serve as a guiding light for those who lack a sense of direction.

A sample of the stenciling

Another acknowledgment of the past is six columns draped with posters saluting major events. One of these honouring a concert held on May 10, 1975 when Frank Sinatra performed at the Gardens.

Unfortunately, no area of the interior was deemed to have heritage value. Thus, the glorious art deco lobby was demolished. Its survival would have only enhanced the experience of visiting 60 Carlton. Beyond the architectural importance, the space could have been used as an information desk and benefit customers by supplying coat check services.

Somewhere there must be room for a Gardens museum. It is my understanding this is in the cards as part of future development plans. The history and artifacts of this building shouldn't be hidden away, but made accessible to all.

My grade for this project so far? For all concerned - Loblaws, Ryerson and the Federal Government - they deserve a solid A-Plus. In hockey terms, they have scored the game-winning-goal.

One only has to think of the alternative.