Amongst hockey fans — and those pulling into the drive-thru for a double-double and a Boston Cream donut – it seems everyone is acquainted with the name “Tim Horton” but many have no idea who Tim Horton was.
While awaiting his birth, his mother always referred to him by ‘Tim,’ but too ill to attend the christening, she was astonished to discover that her husband had named the baby ‘Miles Gilbert Horton.’ “He was always ‘Tim’ to relatives and friends, and later to his many fans,” his wife, Lori, wrote in In Loving Memory: A Tribute to Tim Horton. “Except for certain documents and the odd piece of official business, Tim’s given names were never used.”
Tim was bigger and stronger than the other neighbourhood boys in his hometown of Cochrane, Ontario, and he bullied them over the years. “It was something Tim had a guilt complex about, even as an adult,” explained his wife in “He started going to church, all by himself, at age 12 in a conscious effort to change his ways, and he continued to attend Sunday services throughout his life.”
Charlie Cerre, who had attended St. Michael’s College in Toronto, had taken a teaching position at Sudbury High School after the Second World War, and also coached hockey. When he was in Toronto, he’d visit St. Mike’s, and would recommended outstanding athletes from the Sudbury area to St. Michael’s, whose junior hockey team was sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs. One of those athletes was a standout defenceman with the Copper Cliff Redmen by the name of Tim Horton.
There was a sticking point, though. In a letter to Cerre dated June 16, 1947, Father Mallon from St. Michael’s wrote, “You might tell him (Horton) that as far as the scholarship goes, I can look after that, but Father Bondy demurred somewhat over the fact that he is not a Catholic. Personally, I think it does us no harm to have a couple (of Protestant boys attending the school) as long as they are of good character and come well recommended, but I cannot always get others to agree with me.”
It wasn’t just Horton’s religious denomination that concerned Father Mallon. “We heard that the pro scouts lost interest in him as a prospect because of his eyes.” A scouting report from February 1947 indicated that Horton “seems to have something the matter with one of his eyes. Wears glasses. Seemed to have trouble taking passes on the ice.” The Maple Leafs’ head scout, Bob Davidson, visited Horton and reported: “Tells me he needs glasses to read and in school, but he don’t need glasses to play hockey.”
The obstacles were overcome, however, and Horton was admitted to St. Michael’s College School in the fall of 1947. Not always successful as a student, he was, if nothing else, diligent. His roommate at St. Michael’s, Ted Carlton, stated, “For a hockey player, he tried hard. I met a lot of hockey players during my years at St. Mike’s and some of them just did not give a damn about school and went through the motions.”
Conn Smythe set his sights on stacking the Toronto Marlboros (a second Maple Leafs’ sponsored Junior ‘A’ team in the Ontario Hockey Association) in hopes of winning the Memorial Cup in 1950. He convinced George Armstrong and Danny Lewicki to leave Stratford for the Marlies, but he also wanted Horton to move from St. Mike’s to the Marlboros. Tim balked. He was a popular student and especially appreciated coach Joe Primeau, a man he called “the greatest coach I ever played for.”
Smythe countered with a pro contract. After calling his parents, Tim decided he would sign and report to the Pittsburgh Hornets, Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate. On March 26, 1950, Horton joined the Maple Leafs for the final game of that season. He next appeared in the NHL in 1951–52, when he played four games, but by 1952–53, he was a full-time Maple Leaf.
Punch Imlach, the Leafs coach, had the highest regard for Horton, who anchored the blueline as Toronto won the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. “I have always had a special feeling for Tim Horton. When I took over in Toronto in 1958, he had already been a pro hockey player for nine years, and although he was known as the strongest man in the NHL, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Imlach wrote in Heaven and Hell in the NHL.
The Leafs were a particularly close team. “Unbelievably close,” recalled Lori Horton. “After a game, you went out to celebrate or drown your sorrows, one or the other, but they were always together. It was a nice, warm family feeling with the team.” When asked what Tim treasured most from his years in Toronto, his wife replied, “It was more the friendships than the Cups, although the Cups were very important to him. He always said the miracle finish of 1958-59 was far more exciting to him than the four Cups were.”
While playing with the Leafs, Horton was the ringleader behind several harmless shenanigans. “He was fun to be around,” laughed Dave Keon. “He was a great player, teammate and friend.”
Allan Stanley partnered on the blueline with Horton for almost ten years, and during that time, they were also roommates on the road. “He was an easygoing, kind, considerate, thoughtful guy. Always was. You could discuss problems and he’d have suggestions. It’s nice to have somebody to talk to when problems come up.”
During his Toronto days, Horton was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team three times and to the Second Team on three other occasions. Twice, he was runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman, finishing behind Pierre Pilote in 1964 and Bobby Orr in 1969.
Until the National Hockey League Players’ Association was established in 1967 (and on its heels, the World Hockey Association in 1972), making players’ wages respectable, most NHL players were forced to take summer employment. Tim Horton had spent summers working in Conn Smythe’s gravel pits but, in looking for a job that would follow hockey after his retirement, fell into a career that has become his legacy.
Horton had experimented with several businesses before hitting paydirt with coffee and donuts. A failed used car dealership preceded Horton’s venture into fast food. Impressed with the success of hamburger franchises operated by friends and former teammates Gord and Ray Hannigan (Hannigan Burger King), Horton tried his hand at hamburger and chicken restaurants, opening five short-lived outlets.
While the burger and chicken enterprises were failing, the donut market began to fly in southern Ontario. In April 1964, without benefit of fuss or fanfare, a Tim Horton Donut Drive-In opened in a former gas station on Ottawa Street in Hamilton, Ontario.
The store capitalized on the donut craze sweeping the province and was immediately successful. At that time, coffee and donuts were the only products offered, although there were as many as 40 varieties of donuts, including the first two original Tim Hortons creations – the Dutchie and the Apple Fritter.
While Tim could only afford to spend one day a week on his outside businesses during the hockey season, he quickly realized that he needed a partner. In stepped Ron Joyce, a former Hamilton policeman, who bought the franchise in 1965 and added another later that year. “He needed somebody who knew a little about the business,” Joyce said of Horton. The two became partners and on December 1, 1966, Ron Joyce joined Horton as a partner in Tim Donut Ltd.
In a between-period interview on ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ Horton was asked by Ward Cornell about plans for retirement. The 38-year-old Horton answered, “Things are quite hectic these days, trying to combine business with hockey.”
Cornell replied, “You’re talking about your new donut chain.”
“Yes, Tim Hortons Donuts,” responded the veteran defenceman.
Cornell laughed and jokingly handed Horton a bill for the publicity.
By 1970, Tim Donut was a chain of 21 stores when the first Toronto Tim Hortons opened at Kennedy and Eglinton in the city’s east end.
Horton was traded to the New York Rangers in March 1970 and the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed him in the 1971 Intra-League Draft. He played two seasons in Buffalo, beginning in 1972–73.
On February 20, 1974, the Buffalo Sabres played Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. Horton, playing with a cracked jaw, played just the first two periods of the contest, a 4–2 Toronto win, but nevertheless was selected as the game’s third star. “He was hurting too bad to play a regular shift in the third period,” recalled Punch Imlach, the Sabres’ coach at the time. “We faded without him and lost the game to the Leafs. After the game, he and I took a little walk up Church Street. He was down in the dumps because he didn’t like to miss a shift and he felt he had cost us the game. I got on the bus with the team. Tim drove the cursed car back to Buffalo. He didn’t make it.”
On his way back to Buffalo at 4:30 the morning of February 21, 1974, Horton lost control of his speeding Ford Pantera on the highway near St. Catharines, rolling it several times. He died instantly, just 44 years of age.
In the eulogy, delivered before hundreds of mourners at Oriole-York Mills United Church, family friend Gordon Griggs commented: “To Tim, life was a gift from God. He gave of himself in the game of hockey more than was required of any athlete.”
The pallbearers were George Armstrong, Bob Baun, Dick Duff, Billy Harris, Dave Keon and Allan Stanley, six of his closest friends from the Maple Leafs’ dynasty years.
Dick Duff remarked, “He touched lots of people in different walks of life, and stayed the same through it all. He left his mark.”
“No finer person, teammate or hockey player ever lived,” said George Armstrong, the Leafs emotional captain.