As Auston Matthews and John Tavares raise fragile hopes that the Toronto Maple Leafs may soon hoist the team’s first Stanley Cup since 1967, a sheen of half-century old memories glisten in my mind as if just laid out by an ice-rink Zamboni. Their power to trigger a rueful grin has not diminished.
At age ten, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovolich and the impossibly ancient Johnny Bower were gods worshipped day and night. I scanned daily Toronto Star and Telegram game reports, photos, columns and stats with disciple-like devotion. At the barber shop, I would waive my turn several times just to devour the monthly Hockey News – and vainly stall another hated brush-cut.
As testaments of faith, I would draw action scenes that filled giant, manila paper scrapbooks: Bower doing the splits and snatching another puck from its destined top corner. Mahovolich swooping down left wing to unleash a slapshot Montreal broadcaster Danny Gallivan would call ‘cannonading’. (The delicious word even resembled the concussive ring and fading echo of an artillery shell). Keon pirouetting on tip-toe skates, then celebrating a delicate backhand winner with several front teeth missing from his grin.
On Wednesday and Saturday nights, I begged and pleaded – to no avail except during spring playoffs – for my parents to waive my game-night curfew: the end of the 1st period. But since our clunky black-and-white Zenith tv was in the basement, I evaded this edict by hiding a crystal radio unit (which came in the form of a miniature rocket and single ear-plug) within my bedsprings. Miraculously, it picked up the radio station that carried Foster Hewitt’s nationally broadcast play-by-play.
Eventually my mom discovered, then confiscated, my personal pirate radio. So I resorted to plastering one ear to my hard-wood bedroom floor, for hours at a time, when my parents were listening to the game just below. The next morning she would ask, both puzzled and suspicious, why I had gritty crust in my eyes, and dark bags under them.
By day, my young buddies and I would talk up our beloved Leafs at every available chance. We soon learned, by way of detentions, that ‘available’ did not apply during classes. After school, we played road hockey from September until May, and virtually non-stop on weekends. We wore Leaf sweaters with the numbers of our heroes, played their positions, took shots like they did, made goalie saves Johnny Bower would have admired. In our world, Leaf loyalty was total.
At Christmas, presents might include a new set of goalie pads, a CCM or Hespeler stick, or rolls of black tape and a Dave Keon skate sharpener in the stocking. One year, my uncle Jack gifted a table-top hockey game. It was played against all comers, with levers jammed, twisted and pulled at a pace which often produced bloody knuckles and coming-of-age profanity. My younger brother inherited the unit, and the swear words.
On the day before my 11th birthday, my dad scored two tickets and I watched my heroes for the very first time from inside the historic old Gardens on Carleton Street. I should have known doom was ordained when it was announced Johnny Bower would not play. Tragically, they fell 11-0 to the Boston Bruins, which were perennial last-place losers in the pre-Bobby Orr era. The next day, one of the Toronto papers put eleven pucks across the top of the sports page. No headline was needed. What humiliation!
Enter the Salada Tea company, and its Shirriff brand of powdered jello, pie filling and pudding mix. Some brilliant company mind, likely with a son and/or nephews my age, knew depth of obsession – and a marketing bonanza – when they saw it.
Starting in the early 1960’s, just as the Leafs began a series of playoff and Stanley Cup runs (often involving the dreaded Montreal Canadiens) Salada began inserting plastic hockey hero coins in supermarket tea products. In the summer, Shirriff put them into jello packages. There were 20 player coins per team, and only the Original Six teams at first. The whole 120-coin set, once attained, could be placed in different coloured plastic team plaques for display in any boys bedroom.
Make that every boys bedroom. The wave of panic purchasing that soon swept much of Canada was a pre-cursor to the Pokemon and Ninja Turtle crazes decades later. Supermarket aisles would feature mom’s being hounded by their young sons to buy more tea, more jello, more pudding. Now. Today. Not next week. To us, it was irrelevant if mom already had a month of tea bags left, or that buying old jello stock in January was not on her list.
I was one of the besiegers. Maybe one of the worst. The instant the grocery bags arrived at home, the packs would be ripped open to see which coins were inside. I was elated if a Leaf coin I needed was there, but instantly dejected if I got a spare or some Detroit player that seemed utterly useless.
Worse, I was mortified when my buddy up the street raced far ahead of me in collecting all 20 Leafs, while I somehow owned stacks of strangers from the Black Hawks, Rangers, or basement dwelling Bruins. (I later discovered my so-called pal had persuaded his mom to buy months worth of tea, jello and pie filling in advance. He showed me the bursting pantry evidence. All the packet tops were torn off).
Next came sharp lessons in hockey coin capitalism.
I, my buddies, our parents and aunts and uncles soon discerned that the hockey coin frenzy was occurring across Canada. It was particularly feverish because, unlike in the United States, young boys north of the border then worshipped hockey through every season, while those in New York City, Boston or Detroit diluted their divinities by collecting baseball, football and even grisly Civil War cards in addition to the four U.S. based NHL teams. The Blue Jays, Raptors and Toronto FC did not exist. Nor did the Oilers, Flames, Canucks and Jets.
But it took longer for families to realize that some desperately sought hockey coins rarely showed up in tea or jello shipments to grocery stories in particular cities. For example, Dave Keon coins might be plentiful in Montreal, Winnipeg and Halifax – but not Toronto where they were most prized. Similarly, the coin for the amazing, acrobatic Montreal goalie Jacques Plante might flood Saskatchewan or Winnipeg grocery stores, but not those in Quebec where he was beyond mere veneration. The Gordie Howe coin might be rarely found in Windsor, despite being one bridge away from to Detroit. But coins for the blonde, burly Chicago defenceman Elmer “Moose” Vasko would show up in pack after pack.
This phenomenon made it seemingly impossible for boys to complete the set of their home-town heroes. But – perhaps by diabolical design – it also kept moms buying more and more tea and jello, with less and less success. The pressure ratcheted up with each failed purchase, particularly if a mother in the neighbourhood (like my pal’s) helped their son complete their team or set first, using tactics that bordered on betrayal.
But a remedy emerged, spreading at astonishing speed by word of mouth. Informal, micro-level stock exchanges began appearing in school-yards or suburban basements, where – instead of prized marbles – hockey coins would be won (by spinning one closest to a wall) or traded using tactics that would astound an astute stock broker.
If, for example, I had a Bobby Hull someone needed, a deal would be done in exchange for a George Armstrong I wanted. Or, I might gladly give up two Harry Howells and one Gump Worsley to trade for a Bob Pulford. Or I might demand, and get, ten valuable ‘traders’ to part with a highly-prized Dickie Moore. Then I could use those surplus traders to wring the exact coin I sought from someone else.
One day, it struck me that a young male cousin of mine who lived in Winnipeg might have hockey coins that were sparse in Toronto, and vice-versa. I got my reluctant mom to call my Aunt Carole long-distance. Inventories were taken and exchanged. Sure enough, there were plenty of rarified coins waiting out west, and I had some of my own to trade. The dealing was concluded at our annual Christmas family reunion. Everyone went home happy, including parents hoping that the madness would end soon.
Eventually, all my wheeling and dealing got me to the point where I had every coin for the entire league – except that of the smooth-skating, classy Montreal Canadiens captain. (Even though Jean Beliveau was the leader of Toronto’s arch rival, most of us knew enough to respect him and their daring thief-goalie as exemplars of the sport we adored.)
Inexplicably, some of my pals already had coin #102, which they glued into the proper spot in their red Canadiens’ plaque. But when they spoke of Jean Beliveau, I shook my head and lamented I was still one coin short. When I heard Foster Hewitt call his name during tv or radio play-by-plays, I grew even more disconsolate. I must have had nightmares, and the name Beliveau echoed like a cruel taunt in my ears. Beliveau! Beliveau! Why has he forsaken me?
Then one day the awful truth dawned. As I was making desperate school-yard offers to extract the final coin I needed, someone said they had a Jean Beliveau to trade. Amazed, I immediately proposed bartering – right then and there – every last coin in my pocket stockpile. But only on condition that I inspect the coin first, to make sure it was the one I had pursued in vain for months.
Sure, he shrugged, then handed over what proved to be a genuine # 102 before triumphantly scooping up all my spares. In that instant I belatedly discovered that at least six identical coins had passed through my hands in the previous year! Problem was, inside my unwordly, exclusively anglo-phone mind, I was phonetically pronouncing the player as Gene BellaView. Everyone else in the world knew him, of course, as the now late, great Jean Beliveau.
Until that epiphany, the name I read and the name I heard belonged to two completely unrelated hockey players. Now they were one and the same, and my entire league set had its final hero.
If Le Capitaine reads this vignette up in heaven, perhaps at a barber-shop featuring old Koken pump chairs, steaming towels, cigar smoke and pungent hair tonic, I hope my Salada days faux pas puts a smile on his eternally handsome face.
Paul McKay is a journalist, author and past Pierre Berton Writer-in-Residence. He played street hockey in the suburban Toronto neighbourhood called Wishingwell Acres.