Tim Horton: hockey's brand name
Hockey Hall of Famer Tim Horton played 22 NHL seasons until his 1974 death
An NHL pay cut led him to plant the seeds of Canada's largest restaurant chain
The rise of the chain is a story with dark undertones, but he's fondly remembered
Tim Horton, perhaps the most well-known name in all of Canada, was by most accounts a very difficult man to get to know.
Frank Orr spent 37 years writing about sports for the Toronto Star, much of that time covering the Maple Leafs, for whom Horton played from 1951-70. Orr says he can count on one hand the number of times that Horton ever really talked to him in depth, but one was in a Montreal hotel lobby on an off-night during the 1962 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Leafs and the Canadiens. Horton was well-established as an NHL defenseman by then, but never far from his mind were thoughts of how the Leafs had cut his roughly $8,000 salary in half for 1955-56 because he had suffered serious leg and jaw injuries on a hit by Bill Gadsby of the New York Rangers late the previous season.
"Horton told me that injury had drilled into him how fragile careers in a contact game could be, and with a wife and four young daughters to support, he said that he was looking hard for a business to get involved in off the ice," says Orr, who was inducted into the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. "He had worked for a Studebaker dealership in Hamilton, Ont., and with some friends had tried a drive-in hamburger spot bearing his name, which barely broke even. A couple of years later with a partner, he tried a donut/coffee spot in Hamilton. It worked modestly well."
GALLERY: Athletes who succeeded in business
It may sound as if Orr is trying to be funny. After all, Tim Hortons is now the largest restaurant chain in all of Canada, with more than 3,000 locations and several hundred more in other countries including the U.S. The chain grossed nearly $2.6 billion (Canadian) last year and employs more than 100,000 people. You really can't go more than a few kilometers in reasonably well-populated areas of Canada before seeing Horton's name in familiar red, italicized letters. Canadian tourists often speak of going through "Timmy's withdrawal" if they go just a few days without a "Double Double" (large coffee with two creams, two sugars) or accompanying "Timbits" (bite-sized donut holes).
GALLERY: Hockey's culinary delights
But the fact is, at the time of Horton's tragic death in an auto accident in 1974, the number of stores bearing his name numbered only 40. In 1975, Horton's half of the business was sold by his widow, Lori, for $1 million and a Cadillac Eldorado to Horton's second co-partner, a former Hamilton policeman named Ron Joyce. Today, Joyce is worth hundreds of millions and he travels by private jet to his several luxury homes. Lori Horton died in 2000, having squandered the money from the sale years before. She had unsuccessfully sued Joyce, claiming that she was not of sound mind while doing the original deal because of alcohol and prescription drug use.
The unpleasant business aspects of the chain's history and Tim Horton's life and death -- much of which was aired in the 2006 book "Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons By the Man Who Created a Canadian Empire" by Joyce and journalist Robert Thompson -- has not diminished Horton's legend. Orr says Horton probably never would have guessed that the stores bearing his name would become the phenomenon they are today, but he recalls that Horton felt great pride after his first store opened in Hamilton in 1964.
"The business was important to him, for the income it generated," says Orr, "but he once said to me, 'I think people are a little surprised that I'm having success at something other than hockey because they thought I was just a dumb jock.'"
Those who played with Horton said he rarely talked about his shops, which originally served just donuts and coffee but today feature a wide variety of other items, including soups and sandwiches.
"He was a hockey player first and foremost, and a very good friend and teammate," says former Maple Leaf Dave Keon, like Horton a Hockey Hall of Famer, who now lives in Florida. "The business stuff was a distant second, but I know he cared about his shops. I know he and Ronnie (Joyce) worked hard at it, but I'm sure he'd have been a bit surprised at how big it became."
Joyce is largely credited for turning Tim Hortons into a mega-success through tireless work and menu innovation, though there are some who believe that he has taken a little too much credit at the expense of Horton's name. (Repeated efforts to contact Joyce for comment were unsuccessful.) That Joyce chose to air some of the late Horton's dirty laundry in the book -- saying he was an alcoholic, unfaithful in his marriage and often an indifferent business partner -- has cast Joyce in a negative light among many Canadians. (If he "created" the Tim Hortons empire, as his book's title suggests, maybe he should have taken Horton's name off the signs and put his own up, say his detractors.)
Horton's name is known to most North Americans under the age of 30 for his coffee shops, but his feats as a hockey player haven't been lost on those who played with and against him. He won four Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs before being traded to the Rangers late in the 1969-70 season. Even at 44, he was still playing a strong brand of defense for the Buffalo Sabres when, in the wee hours of Feb. 21, 1974, after a game, he lost control of his De Tomaso Pantera sports car on a highway near St. Catherines, Ontario. He collided with a culvert and died after being ejected from the vehicle. Police later said he'd been driving more than 100 miles per hour. An autopsy revealed his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.
Peter McNab was a rookie forward on that Sabres team, and he got to know Horton when the two lived at the same Buffalo hotel, the Statler Hilton.
"We rode back and forth from the practice rink together in that Pantera. Sometimes he'd even let me drive it," McNab says. "He had those big, black horn-rimmed glasses (from nearsightedness) and didn't look the part of this guy who was such a big, powerful presence. But there was no stronger man in the game of hockey at that time, even at his age."
Despite his modest 5-10, 185-pound frame, Horton was all muscle and chiseled jaw. His "bear hugs" of players during fights were such that opponents said they couldn't breathe, and after awhile everybody learned not to mess with him.
"I remember one day at practice, I just went around Timmy Horton, and all of a sudden this hand came out and picked me up and sat me on the boards," McNab says. "And then he says, 'Kid, you didn't think that would work did ya?' And I weighed 225 pounds. Guys were just laughing."
Jim Schoenfeld was another rookie on that 1973-74 Sabres team. He was often paired with Horton, both on the ice as defensive partners and in hotel rooms during road trips. A native of Galt, Ontario, Schoenfeld idolized Horton as a Maple Leaf and says he never would have had the success he achieved as an NHL player without Horton's insight, despite the brief time they played together.
"The biggest thing he taught me was to time your departure from the offensive zone, so that you're matching the speed of the forwards in the neutral zone," Schoenfeld says. "It was all about timing; the old term is 'standing the guys up', but there's a misnomer there, where you think it's just standing flat-footed and lunging at the forward and you get toasted on either side. But it's really where you give the forward a little ice, and once you come to the point of no return, you take him out. Once I got it, it really made things easier for my game because I spent a lot less time in the defensive zone. And even if a guy beat you, he was often off-sides. I'd want to back up all the time, but Timmy's thing was always 'No, you've got to hold the line.'
He kept teaching me, and it was invaluable."
Horton was so strong, Schoenfeld says, that he could put his stick on the ice with just his thumb and two fingers to block passes. Most defensemen put the stick on the ice with their knuckles first, but that often leaves a little gap through which the puck can scoot. Horton taught Schoenfeld the proper way to get the stick flat on the ice, and as a result he broke up a lot more passes than he would have the old way.
Hall of Fame former coach Scotty Bowman also remembers Horton's strength above all.
"If he got you up against the boards, you didn't get out unless he let you," Bowman says. "He was just very powerful and impressive. He was a good looking man with these four beautiful daughters. He had a presence about him, but he was quiet, too."
When the horrible news came on that early morning in 1974, McNab says, "You just couldn't believe that Timmy Horton was gone. He was just too big and strong."
The Sabres advanced to the Stanley Cup Final the following season. Schoenfeld says Horton's death was a tragedy that still affects him today, but it helped galvanize the Sabres as a team.
"I've never talked to a teammate about it, but I think that it made us kind of have a renewed respect for the contributions of everyone else," Schoenfeld says. "The next year, I thought we pulled together as a team, whether you want to call it because of his spirit or something like that. We all shared in the grief together, and we all helped each other get through it and I think it helped grow the team."
Horton has four surviving daughters -- one of whom, Jeri-Lyn, ironically married Joyce's son, Ron, Jr. The elder Joyce reportedly gives a regular stipend to the four Horton daughters even though Joyce himself cashed out of the business in 2001, selling his remaining shares to the Wendy's Corporation for a reported $250 million.
Jim Schoenfeld says that whenever he walks into a Tim Hortons store today he always takes a moment to remember the man he knew only too briefly.
"This may be the last generation that really only knows who Timmy was. Everyone else, they know the name, they associate it with coffee and donuts and conversation. But they don't know the magnitude of the man. That to me is a little sad, but that's life."
By the end of his, Horton's marriage appeared headed to divorce and despite better success with his shops, a $100,000-plus salary with Buffalo, and four Stanley Cup rings, "He never seemed really happy," says Orr.
Says Keon, "To those of us who played with him, though, he was always happy playing the game of hockey and he did anything for a teammate. That, to me, is where he'll always have made his name."