There’s much more to Tim Horton tale than good coffee

He was an enforcer, ultimately addicted to hockey, painkillers and alcohol, who played into his 40s when financially, he didn't need to. He died on Feb. 21 1974, aged 44, while driving home in the early hours after a meeting with Ron Joyce, his partner in the coffee and doughnut business. His death was attributed to drink, painkillers and speed.

Financial Post
February 12, 2001

There’s much more to Tim Horton tale than good coffee
Chris Cobb

There's a chance that you're reading this in a Tim Hortons, sipping a coffee and perhaps munching on a gooey doughnut. Like millions of Canadians, you probably go to a Tim Hortons for an occasional caffeine and sugar fix.

But who was this guy Tim Horton?

Even those who do know that Horton was a hard-nosed NHL defenceman 30 or 40 years ago will know little of the tragedy of his personal life because most of it has been forgotten, and the rest never told.

Vancouver-based filmmaker Daniel Gelfant grew up in Winnipeg when Tim Horton was on top of his professional game. He collected the cards and stickers and, like all hockey kids, the romantic illusions that went with them. The chance to make a documentary on the troubled hockey hero of his childhood was not one he was going to pass up.

Gelfant's film, Tim Horton: The Perfect Husband is broadcast tomorrow on CBC as part of the network's Life and Times series. It's a sad story of a time when hockey players were treated as lesser beings by team owners and million-dollar salaries were the stuff of wild imagination.

First, a reminder of who Horton was — especially for those whose only associations with the name are doughnuts and a double-double.

Horton was a six-time hockey all-star and part of four Toronto Maple Leaf Stanley Cup victories in the 1960s under coach Punch Imlach.

He was an enforcer, ultimately addicted to hockey, painkillers and alcohol, who played into his 40s when financially, he didn't need to.

He died on Feb. 21 1974, aged 44, while driving home in the early hours after a meeting with Ron Joyce, his partner in the coffee and doughnut business. His death was attributed to drink, painkillers and speed.

Horton was born dirt poor in the Great Depression in Cochrane, Ont., and like many boys in his position he used hockey as a means to wrench himself out of poverty-stricken small-town Canada.

He was recruited to play defence at St. Michael's College in Toronto and, when he graduated at 19, he was sent to the minor leagues to play for the Pittsburgh Hornets. By 1952, he was married and playing for the Leafs. He was paid $9,000 a year.

"He could grab a guy around the ribs and break them," says the narrator. "And he did."

Gelfant's documentary, though sometimes begging as many questions as it answers, scores points because it is sympathetic without being apologist.

Horton came from poverty and succeeded in hockey but it was hockey and long stretches away from home that created an absentee father of four daughters, a neglectful husband and sometimes violent alcoholic.

"I didn't forgive him at first," says his widow Lori at the outset of tomorrow's program. "As far as I'm concerned, he killed himself — he kind of walked out on me and the girls."

Gelfant makes extensive use of interviews with Lori Horton, daughters Jeri and Traci and former Horton teammates Dick Duff and Eddie Shack. Business partner Joyce, a former Hamilton, Ont., police officer, refused to take part in the documentary.

"Full-time care of a hockey player is a big job," says Lori Horton, an American beauty who met Horton while he was playing in Pittsburgh. She had personal ambitions, she says, but most of them went unfulfilled because of her commitment to Tim and the kids.

Lori Horton began filling the lonely voids by drinking and then by popping diet pills prescribed by her doctor. She became addicted to both. A year after her husband died, she signed away all rights both to the business and the Tim Horton name to Joyce. She tells Gelfant that she can't account for the million dollars she got in return.

Joyce and Horton started their doughnut business in 1964, after Horton had failed at other business ventures. There were 39 doughnut and coffee shops when he died. Today, there are 2,000 and Tim Hortons is a billion-dollar business.

Little is said in the documentary about the bitter lawsuits Lori launched and lost against Joyce in an effort to get her rights back. But bitter they were.

There are soft moments during the interviews with Lori. Her story was not all bitterness and bad memories. The Horton daughters have mostly fond memories of their father and become especially animated when the documentary takes them backstage at the Gardens where they recall watching their dad play and meeting him after games.

Gelfant, a former CBC National and Journal producer, makes extensive and effective use of old family photographs borrowed from Lori.

"I asked her for some old photographs," he says, "and she left this big box on her doorstep.

"She had them in the basement for 27 years and couldn't bear to go through them. So we sorted them all for her. She was very pleased."

Shack and Duff give straight-shooting interviews. People too young to know will find their descriptions of life in the NHL especially enlightening. It had guts, glory and lots of bus and train travel but little internal respect or financial reward.

Lori Horton died less than two months ago, of heart failure, shortly after the documentary was finished.

And a happier point to ponder: Tim Horton's eldest daughter Jeri was working in a promotional capacity with the company when she met Ron Joyce Jr., the son of her dad's partner. They married and have a young son.

Tim Horton's story isn't always pretty but it's uniquely Canadian and about a whole lot more than coffee and doughnuts. It's worth watching.

Chris Cobb's column appears Monday and Friday. E-mail him at ac.amgam|nusboc#ac.amgam|nusboc

Tim Horton: The Perfect Husband is broadcast on the CBC-TV network tomorrow at 7 p.m.


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