After Dad died, my brother and I assumed the task of going through his belongings, making piles in strategic corners of the room: “This pile is yours, this pile is mine, this pile’s for Goodwill.”
One of the items we came across was a small, homemade wooden box secured with a tiny lock. By shaking it, we could tell there were items inside, but there was no key to be found. For months, the box sat unopened at my Mom’s house. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and, with everyone’s permission, I pried the hinges off the back of the box so we could discover its contents.
It was far less dramatic than Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault on TV, but to me, this was far more riveting. Inside was nothing more than some newspaper clippings regarding hockey players and a young boy’s written scoring summaries of Toronto Maple Leaf games. Dad must have been about 14 or 15, making notes while listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio. But there was something curious that caught my attention — most of the clippings involved a Maple Leaf player by the name of Jack McLean. It was clear that he was Dad’s favourite, and I had to smile when I read some of the press quotes: ‘Jackie McLean buzzed like a wet bee last night’; ‘McLean, the toy bulldog, skated miles all night’ and ‘Jack McLean nudged Murph Chamberlain’s bridgework so vigourously that two dentists in our section were screaming his name enthusiastically.’
For some unknown reason, it was important for me to discover more about this obscure Toronto Maple Leaf player. Regular visits to the Hockey Hall of Fame provided a few answers. Jack McLean had been a spirited, mercury-fast youngster who played for Toronto during the Second World War. His three seasons as a Leaf were all played while earning an engineering degree at the University of Toronto. I discovered that Jackie McLean had been part of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup celebration in 1945. To my astonishment, I also discovered that Jack McLean was my great-uncle.
The opening of a little boy’s wooden box began a six-year odyssey for me. If it was important to research Jack McLean’s hockey legacy, then I was damned near obsessed in discovering if Jack was alive and, whether he was or not, to compile details about a side of my family of which I knew next to nothing.
Six years provided one dead end after another. Not a single Maple Leaf alumnus knew of Jack’s whereabouts. Teeder Kennedy had fond memories but no knowledge of Jack after 1945. Bob Davidson said some complimentary things about Jack, but hadn’t heard his name in 50 years. Finally, in desperation, I wrote a letter to the Toronto Sun. Printed in the newspaper one Sunday, my phone rang non-stop from 7 in the morning until I finally pulled the plug at 10PM. Call after call – former neighbours, teammates, classmates, an old girlfriend. None knew Jack’s status or whereabouts, but I received enough clues to piece together the puzzle. If Jack McLean was alive, he was living in Ottawa. I hesitantly called information and was dumbfounded to readily receive the number of a man no one seemed to know even existed.
Jack and I spoke regularly from that day on. In weekly conversations, I had my family tree explained and every nuance of the 1940s’ Toronto Maple Leafs discussed. I discovered truths about my family that were deeper and darker than anything I had ever imagined. Curmudgeonly at first, with each call, Jack warmed more to my conversations. He had resented being released by the Maple Leafs when the boys returned from the War in 1945. He was so bitter, in fact, that his grandchildren knew nothing of their grandfather’s hockey life. But through the months, it became obvious that I was taking an elderly man back to some very happy days. I pieced together scrapbooks for his grandkids, who now considered ‘Poppa’ a hero because he had won the Stanley Cup as a Toronto Maple Leaf. In spite of a thirty-year age difference, Jack and I became the best of friends.
The Toronto Maple Leafs began rewarding players with Stanley Cup rings in 1947. At the time of their championship, Jack’s 1945 team was given the choice of either a sterling silver tea service or a silver cigarette case and lighter. But during the summer of 2003, the Maple Leafs and their Alumni Association decided to present Stanley Cup rings to surviving Stanley Cup-winning Leafs from prior to 1947. To the best of anyone’s recollection, there were but nine players surviving from the 1932, 1942 and 1945 Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs. Jack McLean was one of them.
The ring was spectacular, fashioned from the actual mold used to create the 1947 rings. It was gold with a diamond in the centre of a blue horseshoe that read MAPLE LEAFS, WORLD CHAMPIONS, 1944-45. The player’s name is engraved on one side and the year of the championship on the other.
I made plans to drive the ring up to Ottawa, but work got in the way. “Jack, I won’t be able to get up to see you for a couple of weeks,” I explained, but Jack replied, “Kevin, I’ve waited 57 years for this ring. Two more weeks won’t matter!”
As I drove up to the nursing home, there were already tears welling up in the corners of Jack’s Maple Leaf-blue eyes as he greeted me with a handshake as firm that day as it would have been 57 years previous. We went up to his room and caught up on our lives. Then, I slipped the blue velvet ringbox out of my sportcoat and handed it to this proud champion. Slowly and deliberately, Jack opened the box. The band inside gleamed, but certainly not nearly as much as Jack’s smile. “Kevin,” he started, “This just might be the greatest day of my life.”
Jack McLean celebrated his 80th birthday on January 31 that year. In awarding him a Stanley Cup ring, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Jack the greatest birthday gift he ever received.
In October, Jack and I chatted again, as we did on a regular basis. He was upbeat and talkative, and at the end of the call (as he did every time we spoke), asked when I was coming up to see him. “Jack,” I promised. “I’ll be up before the snow flies.”
I visited Jack again on Saturday, October 18 – long before snowflakes would dance among skaters on the frozen Rideau Canal. But my visit wasn’t at all the way I had planned. That Saturday, I attended his funeral. Jack McLean had died peacefully in his sleep two days earlier.
Death Notices (10/16/03)
McLEAN, John (Jack) Former N.H.L. Player Toronto Maple Leafs Suddenly in hospital on Tuesday, October 14, 2003, Jack McLean at age 80 years. Beloved husband of the late Marjorie (nee Christie). Loving father of John (Elizabeth) of Vancouver, Donna (John) of Nepean and Bruce (France) of Parksville, B.C. Cherished Grandpa of Ryan, Shawn, Andrew and Kate. Dear friend of Kevin Shea. Friends may visit at the West Chapel of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry, 150 Woodroffe Avenue at Richmond Road, Ottawa on Saturday, October 18, 2003 after 11 a.m. until service time in the Chapel at 1 p.m. Special thanks to the staff and residents at Riverpark Place for their friendship and compassion.
More than five years later, a package arrived by courier at my home. My wife called me at work to let me know. The return address meant nothing to me. When I got home, I pulled a small box out of the courier company’s packaging. There was a note tucked into the package.
Through the years, we’ve realized that this package truly deserves to be with you, and the family has decided that we want you to accept it, with love and appreciation for all the things you did to make Dad happy during the final years of his life.
John, Donna and Bruce McLean – Jack’s children’
Inside the box was Jack McLean’s Stanley Cup ring.