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Tim Horton: Hockey Legend and Fast Food Icon

The Toronto Maple Leafs' giant is dwarfed by his coffee-and-doughnut empire.


His name towers over thousands of highway exits and strip malls, a beacon to weary travellers, drowsy office drones, scrambling minivan moms and all others in need of a caffeine-and-sugar jolt. He isn't remembered for Stanley Cups, dramatic goals or anything else that happened on the ice. But Tim Horton ranks with Henderson, Howe, Orr, Hull, Richard and Number 99 as one of Canada's most famous hockey players. If the true measure of fame is name recognition, Horton might be at the top of the list.

His NHL career spanned 22 seasons and landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But a steady defenseman, no matter how dominant, enjoys limited celebrity. The climb to iconic status began in 1964 when he and a partner opened the "Tim Horton Donut Drive-in" in Hamilton, Ontario. By the time Horton died a decade later the business had expanded to 35 shops. Today there are over 2,200 "Tim Hortons" outlets in Canada and the northeastern U.S.

As one of the country's signature brand names, Tim Horton still makes front-page news in Canada. In 2002, police seized his 1967 Stanley Cup ring from a Toronto auction house, where it was about to go on the block. The ring had been stolen from Horton's wife, Lori, in 1998. Lori Horton died not long after the theft, several years after losing a legal battle to retain an interest in the restaurant chain.

In many ways, Tim Horton's story is Canadian mythology made real. He was one of several Maple Leaf stars to emerge from the mining towns of Northern Ontario in the 1940s. Over long winters he honed his game and took his lumps in the freezing cold arenas of Cochrane, Copper Creek and other locales of the Nickel Belt League. At the age of 17 he was anointed by the hockey gods: recruited by the Toronto Maple Leafs for their famous St. Michael's junior team. Five years later, in the fall of 1952, he arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens.

For the next two decades, Horton defined the bruising, reliable defenseman who can rush the puck and deliver a hefty slapshot. In today's jock talk, he was a blueline stud - muscular, smart, tough, mobile and sure-handed, a man the coach could send out for 30 minutes a night without worry.

Along with contemporaries like Howe, Hull and Beliveau, Tim Horton is a bridge between hockey's ancient and modern histories. He saw the debut of Hockey Night In Canada, the rise of the hockey card and the move from black-and-white to color television. His salary rose from $9,000 to $150,000. He played with Max Bentley and against Dennis Potvin. He witnessed the NHL's expansion from the cozy Original Six to 14 teams. The league Horton joined was a cottage industry. By the time he played his last game in 1974, the NHL was in the midst of its first shaky attempts to become a lucrative entertainment conglomerate.

Off the ice, his life is a much darker story.

Next Page - Part Two: Tim Horton's Curious Legacy

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