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Tim Horton's legacy endures years after tragic death: NHL star, donut shop founder remembered

Tim Horton with the Buffalo Sabres.
Tim Horton with the Buffalo Sabres.

As we negotiate our way through the ebbs and flows of our lives, there are moments that stay with us for as long as we live, and they come from so many different places.

Your wedding day, the birth of your children, the passing of a loved one, getting into your dream college, scoring your first goal in youth hockey, performing your first solo in the school play. We can go on and on but you get the point.

Then there are moments that may only affect you peripherally, but you will always remember exactly where you were when they happened, such as the day the planes flew into the Twin Towers, or the Challenger space shuttle exploding, or Team USA accomplishing the Miracle on Ice.

For the members of the Buffalo Sabres’ 1973-74 team, there is the morning of Feb. 21, 1974, when they learned that their beloved teammate, Tim Horton, died in a one-car accident on the Queen Elizabeth Way near St. Catharines, Ontario, about 30 miles from downtown Buffalo.

Tim Horton (No. 7) earned four Stanley Cup championships, including this one in 1967 while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tim Horton (No. 7) earned four Stanley Cup championships, including this one in 1967 while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of that tragedy, one that resonated not only within the cramped confines of the Sabres locker room at old Memorial Auditorium, but also throughout the National Hockey League and all of hockey-crazed Canada, because to our neighbors north of the border, Horton wasn’t only a living legend in the sport, he was also one of their most successful citizens.

His 24-year playing career earned him four Stanley Cup championships, six All-Star appearances and ultimately a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but it was his business acumen that raised the bar on his recognizability and sent his legacy soaring into the stratosphere.

Tim Horton Donuts shop start

A portrait of Tim Horton "skates" over the order counter at a Tim Horton's in Indianapolis.
A portrait of Tim Horton "skates" over the order counter at a Tim Horton's in Indianapolis.

He opened his first self-named Tim Horton Donuts shop in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1964. Not long thereafter, with a menu expanding to other baked goods, coffee and specialty drinks, he and his partners/investors were operating approximately 40 rebranded Tim Horton’s locations in provincial Ontario at the time of Horton’s death.

Fifty years later, Tim Horton’s is the largest fast-service restaurant chain in Canada and there are more than 5,700 locations in 13 countries, one of those in downtown Buffalo just a couple blocks away from where his last NHL team used to play its home games.

My guess is that most of the people who pull into a Tim Horton’s today – at least the ones outside Canada – don’t know who Tim Horton was. The name of the restaurant is ubiquitous, but the man behind the name has been lost to time.

Tim Horton's arrival in Buffalo

Tim Horton with the Buffalo Sabres.
Tim Horton with the Buffalo Sabres.

Back in 1998, I wrote a book titled "Thank You Sabres" that focused on Buffalo’s 1972-73 season, just its third in the NHL, one that began with low expectations but culminated in an unlikely and exciting playoff appearance.

That was the year the famed French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and René Robert rose to prominence, but perhaps just as important to that team’s success was the stewardship Horton provided to a young, inexperienced group.

General manager Punch Imlach knew he needed a savvy veteran to help show the kids the way, and he persuaded his old friend, then 42 years old, to postpone his plans for retirement and leave the coffee and doughnuts to his partners so that he could come play for the Sabres.

2017: Who knew Tim Hortons coffee is roasted in Rochester?

Imlach didn’t have to twist his arm too hard because Horton’s love of hockey was unparalleled. And just as Imlach hoped, Horton helped lead the Sabres to a height no one could have imagined.

Retired Buffalo Sabres linemates Richard Martin, left, Gilbert Perreault, center, and Rene Robert, known in the 1970s as the "French Connection," become emotional as their jerseys are raised together in 1995 at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. Martin and Robert joined previously inducted Perreault in the Sabres Hall of Fame.
Retired Buffalo Sabres linemates Richard Martin, left, Gilbert Perreault, center, and Rene Robert, known in the 1970s as the "French Connection," become emotional as their jerseys are raised together in 1995 at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. Martin and Robert joined previously inducted Perreault in the Sabres Hall of Fame.

During the course of my research, I interviewed several members of that team for their recollections of what remains today – five decades later ‒ one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history. Obviously, the topic of Horton’s brief time with the Sabres and what he meant to the organization before his untimely death occupied many pages in the book.

What Tim Horton meant to his teammates

“I think of Timmy every day of my life,’’ Mike Robitaille, who played three-plus seasons for the Sabres and later spent three decades as a Sabres broadcaster, told me with a very apparent lump in his throat. “He has never left my mind. He made the biggest impact in my life of anyone I’ve ever been involved with in hockey. He never taught me a damn thing verbally about hockey, but I learned things from watching him. I learned how to play angles, putting players at bad angles so when they shoot they can’t score. I didn’t know any of that stuff early in my career.

“I became an experienced player because of Tim. He was everything to me, my mentor, my hero. I idolized him. I used to stand at the blue line during warmups the way Tim did. He would stand there and take his one foot and bring the heel of his skate up, so I did the same thing just because Tim did.”

Lori Horton, widow of Tim Horton, watches as Horton's number is retired before a Sabres game in 1996 at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.
Lori Horton, widow of Tim Horton, watches as Horton's number is retired before a Sabres game in 1996 at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

Imlach and Horton had a long and storied history together. Horton played parts of 20 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs starting in 1950, and between 1958-68 when Imlach was the head coach and Horton anchored the defense, the Leafs lifted Lord Stanley’s chalice four times. The last time was 1967, and the Leafs haven’t won it since.

Imlach was fired following the 1968-69 season, and the next year Horton was traded to the New York Rangers. With the restaurant chain in full bloom, Horton was going to retire at the end of 1970-71, but his old Maple Leaf teammate, Red Kelly, was coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins and he coaxed Horton back for 1971-72.

Once again, he was ready to pack the equipment bag for the final time before his old pal Imlach – who had taken over the operation of the expansion Sabres in 1970 – came calling. When team owners Seymour and Northrup Knox agreed to pay him $100,000, a princely sum back then, Horton figured why not, especially since Buffalo was so close to his suburban Toronto home where he lived with his wife Lori and their four children.

Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach brought Tim Horton to the Sabres for his veteran presence.
Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach brought Tim Horton to the Sabres for his veteran presence.

“Tim was extremely important to the growth of that team,’’ said Don Luce, a teammate of Horton’s with both the Rangers and Sabres. “I knew Tim coming in. He added to the whole team, not just to the defensemen who he took under his wing and taught so many things. He kept everyone in a mode of confidence. With his experience back there, when you were on the ice with Tim, you knew that if you screwed up, he’s probably going to stop them for you and cover up your mistake.”

Ed Westfall, who played against Horton for more than a decade for the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, knew Buffalo had made a wise move signing Horton.

“When Tim Horton came over, he brought a lot of stability to them,’’ Westfall said. “I remember thinking when they got Tim Horton, ‘Can you imagine all these young guys all of a sudden playing on the same team with a guy who already has such a tremendous history?’ He could still play fairly well then and no one ever outworked him, so for those young players to see what kind of a work ethic he had at the end of his career, that was going to be important. I knew they’d be a better team.’’

The New York Islanders' Ed Westfall, shown in 1975, played against Tim Horton for more than 10 years.
The New York Islanders' Ed Westfall, shown in 1975, played against Tim Horton for more than 10 years.

Tim Horton was 'like a built-in father figure'

In 1972-73, the Sabres defense included two other veterans, 35-year-old Larry Hillman and 29-year-old Tracy Pratt, but Paul Terbenche was 27, Robitaille just 24, and rookies Larry Carriere and Jim Schoenfeld were 21 and 20, respectively.

“At that age you’re so impressionable off the ice, everything would happen so fast, but Tim was like a built-in father figure,’’ Carriere said. “I had the utmost respect for how he still played the game, even after 20 years of playing. I can remember going into some of the tough buildings like Philly, Boston and Montreal, and you look over and you think, ‘This guy has been through 20 years of this.’”

For Joe Crozier – the Rochester legend and Amerks Hall of Famer who was the Sabres coach at that time – what he appreciated most was that Horton was like having a coach on the ice.

“Tim was the greatest as far as I’m concerned,’’ Crozier said. “I’ve never met another individual like him with his dedication, and the way he helped the kids. He was 42 years old, yet he was first in everything we ever did. If we were running, he was the first guy there and the first guy back, same thing if we were doing sprints on the ice. The guy was unbelievable. And he meant so much to the kids on the back end, like Robitaille and Schoenfeld and Carriere. It took so much off of me because he did so much for them.’’

Joe Crozier, an Amerks Hall of Famer, was the Sabres coach the year Tim Horton died.
Joe Crozier, an Amerks Hall of Famer, was the Sabres coach the year Tim Horton died.

That first season with Buffalo, Horton played in 69 games and contributed a goal and 16 assists, was named the team MVP (that’s right, not any of the French Connection trio), and then played in all six games in the Sabres’ inaugural postseason series when they pushed the mighty Montreal Canadiens, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, to six games.

After the final 4-2 loss at the Aud, the sellout crowd serenaded the team by repeatedly chanting “Thank you, Sabres” but as heartwarming as that was, Horton made it clear that he was done playing.

But of course he wasn’t because Imlach made it just as clear that he wanted him back. This time, Horton’s demands increased to $150,000 for the 1973-74 season, plus as a bonus, he wanted the Sabres to buy him a De Tomaso Pantera, a hot new Italian-made sports car.

Once again the Knoxes agreed, but giving in on the Pantera demand was something Imlach regretted for the rest of his life because it was in that car that Horton lost his life.

The crash that took Tim Horton's life

The day before the Sabres were to play at Maple Leaf Gardens, Crozier gave Horton permission to drive to Toronto on his own rather than ride on the team bus. Horton had business matters to tend to, and he wanted to spend the night before the game at home with his family.

He had been struck in the face by a puck the day before in practice, and though he was in pain he still played. When he took another puck to the face early in the first period, he soldiered on as long as he could, but he wound up sitting out most of the third period. For his effort during Buffalo’s 4-2 loss, in what would prove to be the last of his 1,571 NHL games counting the playoffs, the Toronto media chose him as one of the three stars.

In the locker room afterward, when Buffalo News sports writer Dick Johnston asked him how he was feeling, Horton jokingly said, “It’s no worse than a hangover.”

What happened in the hours following the game is a bit unclear, but in the book "Open Ice: The Tim Horton Story," which was published in 1994, author Douglas Hunter tried to piece together the timeline. He wrote that after the game Horton drove to Oakville, Ontario, which is about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo and met his business partner, Ron Joyce, at a company office.

Joyce told the author that Horton had an icepack wrapped around his aching jaw, and was drinking vodka, though he claimed not enough to impair him. At around 3 a.m. Horton called both his wife and his brother Gerry, and Gerry could tell that Tim had been drinking and told him to sleep in Oakville and head back to Buffalo later in the morning.

But the Sabres were scheduled for a midmorning skate prior to their game at the Aud later that night against the Atlanta Flames, so Horton left the office around 4 a.m. intending to drive back to his in-season home, though it is uncertain whether that was located on the Ontario or Buffalo side of the border.

A half hour later, an Ontario Provincial Police patrolman witnessed the white Pantera traveling at a speed estimated to be 110 miles per hour and he commenced a pursuit – without his emergency lights or siren activated – that lasted for approximately six miles.

“I saw him go by and took off after him but I never caught him,” Constable Michael Gula told reporters that day. “As far as I’m concerned he didn’t know he was being chased. I was doing over 100 but I lost sight, I never got close. A few minutes later I came on the accident scene.”

Horton lost control on a slight curve and careened into the median, flipped several times and the mangled machinery came to rest in the opposite traffic lane of the highway. Because he was not wearing a seatbelt, Horton was ejected and was found dead 123 feet away from the vehicle.

The police and the coroner’s office did not speak publicly about what may have caused the accident, and the official autopsy report was never released. One reason is that no other vehicles were involved and no charges needed to be filed, but there was also speculation that the authorities did not want to share details in an effort to avoid tarnishing Horton’s name. So the long-held assumption was that excessive speed was the cause of the accident.

However, the autopsy report became available when Ontario’s 30-year privacy exemption expired, and it was obtained in 2005 by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper through a Freedom of Information request to the Ontario government.

It revealed that Horton had a blood alcohol level almost twice Canada’s legal limit, and there were traces of Dexamyl, a prescription drug that combined an amphetamine with the barbiturate amobarbital, and another amphetamine, Dexedrine, though they were both within “usual therapeutic levels.” There was also a bottle of vodka found at the scene.

The Democrat and Chronicle published a story Feb. 22, 1974, about Tim Horton's death.
The Democrat and Chronicle published a story Feb. 22, 1974, about Tim Horton's death.

Police discovered Crozier’s phone number in Horton’s wallet, and thus he was the first to learn of the accident and the person who identified the body in St. Catharines.

“When they called me to come down and identify the body, I couldn’t believe that this could ever take place,’’ Crozier recalled. “When I lost Tim Horton, damn it, I lost my heart.’’

Recalling a day that he says was the low point of his career, Schoenfeld said, “We got a call early in the morning from the (Sabres) office. We were living over in Fort Erie in a beach house and there was a patio out back, and I remember spending most of the day shoveling snow off the patio and then shoveling it back on, just trying to occupy my time with something physical. Then I took my dog for a long walk on the beach, just trying to reconcile things.”

Despite Tim Horton's death, the Sabres played their next game

Today, there’s no way the Sabres would have taken the ice 15 hours after the death of a teammate, but that’s what happened in 1974.

That night at the Aud was surreal, the sadness seeping from every corner of the building, mostly in the form of tears dripping from the eyes of players, coaches and many in the sellout crowd of nearly 16,000.

“I’ll never forget the first game we played after he died,” Robitaille said. “It was an awful night to walk in and see his locker stall empty. You had a feeling like he was a safety net for all of us. When he walked in the dressing room everything was OK, Timmy’s here. When he wasn’t there, we were a little helter-skelter, you felt things could fall apart. He was the glue, just his presence, his past experience, and being the person that he was.’’

Following the pregame warmup, Crozier gathered the team and shared something Horton had said to him less than 24 hours earlier in Toronto. “I didn’t play very well tonight,” Crozier paraphrased. “I wanted to win this game so badly. This will be my last year and I want to make the playoffs.”

Crozier then said, “We can’t bring Tim back, but if we go out there and work, we can get to the playoffs as Timmy wished.”

But hard work was far from anyone’s mind, at least at the start.

“I thought I had a pretty good handle on it, I thought I was OK and I’d go to the rink and play,” Schoenfeld recalled. “But I remember being on the ice during the national anthem and they had the moment of silence for Tim. It was strange, it was almost like you could feel the compound grief of everyone in the building and it was kind of overwhelming.

“I remember trying to play the first shift with tears coming out of my eyes and I remember finishing the shift and going to the bench and Joe Crozier came down and comforted me. He recognized the situation and told me it was going to be OK. From that point on I was OK. You never know when your emotions are going to catch up to you. I thought I had a handle on everything and could keep my emotion inside, but that wasn’t the case.”

Somehow, the heavy-hearted Sabres managed a 4-4 tie with the Flames as Luce scored Buffalo’s first and last goals. When Crozier met with the media after the game, he said of their performance, “They made me proud. I thought it was a superior effort under trying circumstances. I couldn’t ask for more.”

When it was over, several players were in tears. Team captain Gerry Meehan, whose wife had given birth to the couple’s second child at 5:21 a.m., less than an hour after Horton died, was one of the few players who agreed to speak to the media.

“We have to let Timmy be an inspiration to us instead of letting his death affect us negatively,” he said, referring to Horton’s wish of making the playoffs. “He’s got to be with us as much as if he was playing.”

The Sabres were already in a bind regarding the playoff race as they sat in fifth place in the East Division, eight points behind Toronto, with only the top four teams qualifying, and that proved to be too much to overcome. They did not use Horton’s death as an excuse, but those final seven weeks of the season were difficult both emotionally and physically.

Tim Horton remembered: He 'did everything all out'

Tim Horton poses after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the New York Rangers in 1970.
Tim Horton poses after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the New York Rangers in 1970.

When I spoke to Schoenfeld in 1998, it had been 24 years since Horton’s death, and he said he never really got over it. Now that we are 50 years removed, I’m guessing Schoenfeld would still echo what he told me then.

“The loss of Tim was not only felt then, but it’s been felt ever since,” he said. “Tim was not only a great mentor and hockey player and someone I looked up to in that way, he was also a hell of a guy. He was a great example. If you want to look for a person who did everything to the max, whether it was playing the game, working in his business, Tim did everything all out. He lived a very full life and for a young, impressionable kid, that was good to see. In the short time we were together, he had a real strong impact on my life.’’

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana. To subscribe to Sal's newsletter, Bills Blast, which comes out each Friday during the offseason, please follow this link: https://profile.democratandchronicle.com/newsletters/bills-blast.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Tim Horton: Tragic death of NHL star, donut shop founder 50 years later