Original publish date: February 15, 2015
So, my fellow donut devotee, you say you’re tired of seeing the object of your desire maligned in the media? Tired of hearing about another donut shop biting the dust? Missing Saps, Roselyn, Krispy Kreme? Did you shed a tear when the bulldozers knocked down the old Crawford’s Bakery at 16th and Capitol last week? Cheer up, you’ve still got Dunkin Donuts to soothe your cravings. And there’s always the new kid on the block from up north, Tim Hortons. But what do we really know about this Canadian upstart dealer of dainty Danish dunker delicacies?
If you’re a hockey fan, you already know where I’m heading. But if you don’t know a hockey puck from a Hostess Ding-Dong, hang on and let me tell you about a man named Miles Gilbert Horton, better known as Tim. Born on January 12, 1930, Horton was one of the greatest Canadian hockey players to ever lace up the blades and take the ice. A defenseman for 24 seasons in the NHL, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres. From 1950 to 1974, Horton was known by his peers as the strongest man in the game.
Horton was named as an NHL first team All-Star in 1964, 1968, and 1969 and as a second team All-Star in 1954, 1963, and 1967. He was on 4 Stanley Cup Championship teams in 1961–62, 1962–63, 1963–64 & 1966–67. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977, the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in 1982 and the team retired his uniform number 2 in 1996. Horton was ranked number 43 on The Hockey News list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players in 1998. Chicago Blackhawks winger Bobby Hull, himself a mountain of a man, declared, “There were defensemen you had to fear because they were vicious and would slam you into the boards from behind. But you respected Tim Horton because he didn’t need that type of intimidation. He used his tremendous strength and talent to keep you in check.” In a fight, Horton’s trademark move was to immobilize players with a crushing bear hug, which considering his tremendous strength, was probably a blessing in disguise.
Playing in his first NHL game on March 26, 1950, Horton remained a Leaf until 1970. Between February 11, 1961, and February 4, 1968, Horton appeared in 486 consecutive regular-season games; an NHL record for consecutive games by a defensemen for the next four decades. Horton was also a successful businessman whose business ventures included a hamburger restaurant and Studebaker auto dealership in Toronto. But today the bruising NHL defenseman is best known as the founder of the Tim Hortons donut chain. He opened his first Donut Shop in Hamilton, Ontario in 1964. By 1967, Tim Hortons had become a multi-million dollar franchise system. But Horton’s first love was hockey.
In spite of his age (42) and advancing nearsightedness, the Buffalo Sabres signed Horton to a contract in 1972. His superior play helped the Sabres to their first ever playoff appearance in 1973. As a reward, the team signed Horton to a contract extension in the off-season. Sabres GM, Punch Imlach, Horton’s former boss at the Toronto Maple Leafs, gave the aging defenseman a brand new 1974 Ford De Tomaso Pantera Italian-made sportscar as an enticement to return to the team for one more season.
Early in the morning of February 21, 1974 Horton was heading home to Buffalo after a game against his former team at Maple Leaf Gardens the night before. Although the Sabres usually traveled together by bus, Horton made the 100 mile trip alone in his Pantera. The day before the game, Horton had taken a puck in the jaw during practice. His face was swollen and bruised, but true to form, he still wanted to play. With his family and many friends in the crowd at the Gardens, he skated for two periods before leaving the game shortly into the third period. The Sabres lost the game 4-2, and despite sitting out the third period and playing with a jaw and ankle injury, Horton was selected one of the game’s three stars. After the game, Horton met up with his business partner, Ron Joyce, at the Donut company office in Oakville.
“Tim was sitting in our office, his coat on, an ice pack wrapped around his jaw, his driver’s gloves on,” Joyce recalled in 1994. “He was sitting in the dark with his feet up on the table, with a vodka and soda in his hand.” Joyce also claimed that his friend didn’t consume enough to get drunk. Around 3 a.m., Horton called his wife, Lori, and his brother, Gerry. Horton and Joyce talked until about 4 a.m., then Tim left. Joyce later claimed that he saw Horton take a handful of painkillers before he drove off in the Pantera.
Mr. Joyce wasn’t the only one to see the Pantera zoom off on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. A little after 4:00 a.m., a motorist alerted police to a sports car driving dangerously at a speed estimated at 110 miles per hour. Thirty minutes later, Ontario Police Officer Mike Gula observed a speeding vehicle traveling Niagara-bound on the QEW. Gula activated his siren and attempted to pursue Horton’s vehicle, but the office later told the media, “I was doing over 100, but I lost sight. I never got close. A few minutes later, I came on the accident scene.”
As Horton passed a curve at Ontario Street while approaching the Lake Street exit in St. Catharines, he lost control and drove into the center grass median. The tire caught a sewer drain and flipped several times before coming to a stop on its roof in the opposite lanes. Not wearing a seat-belt, Horton was ejected 200 feet away from the car. Mr. Horton’s body was found on the grass of the median according to the diagram included with the report. He was pronounced dead at St. Catharines General Hospital. While the EMT’s worked on the body, investigators combed the scene of the accident. Extra police cruisers were brought in to keep passing motorists from stopping to gawk or hunt for souvenirs.
The police report lists items found at the crash scene: six eight-track stereo cassettes, a set of keys, a package of Old Port Cigars, and a black suitcase with “Tim Horton” tooled into the leather. Police found more personal items, too, including a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a wallet and a stack of credit cards, $205 in cash, a gold ring, a Waltham jewel watch and two Buffalo Sabres paychecks totaling $1,792.
The Pantera itself was totaled; its front hood crushed, tie rods snapped and tires deflated. Once valued at over $17,000, the vehicle was now worth about $500 as scrap. There was no official public inquiry, and his autopsy was not made public. Police would not state if Horton was driving drunk. Keep in mind that back in 1974, sadly, the stigma against drunk driving was not the same as it is today. The Canadian Transportation Department later launched an investigation to find out why the right front door opened during the crash, allowing for “ejection of the driver.” But the department never issued a report. It is widely believed that doctors eschewed an inquest in order to leave hockey hero Horton’s legacy untarnished.
Horton left behind a wife and four daughters. Following Horton’s death, Ron Joyce offered Horton’s widow Lori $1 million for her shares in the chain, which back then was 40 stores. Accepting his offer, Mr. Joyce became sole owner. Lori died in 2000 at the age of 68. By 2013, Mr. Joyce had expanded the chain to nearly 4,600 stores in Canada alone. Joyce’s son, Ron Joyce, Jr., is married to Horton’s eldest daughter.
On Feb. 21, 2004, 31 years after Horton’s death, the autopsy was made public (with witness statements redacted). The report revealed that Horton’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and that a 40-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, with its top broken off, was found among the crash debris. Somewhere at the scene, police also found six tablets: two orange and four green. Another green pill was found in Mr. Horton’s pocket. The drugs turned out to Dexedrine and Dexamyl. Traces of Dexamyl were later found in his blood. The autopsy report found no painkillers in Horton’s body. The car was found to be in good working order. There was nothing to suggest Horton was evading police, or that he even knew police were in pursuit.
The first page of the post mortem report notes that the body on the exam table was “the famous hockey player on the team of Buffalo Sabres.” The details of the paperwork contained statistics that read like a hockey card: length: 5’9″; weight: 210 lbs; and “apparent age,” 44. The report notes that Horton was wearing a brown checked topcoat, a yellow sports coat, a yellow shirt, brown boots and brown pants.
On the second page, the report revealed the grim injuries sustained by Horton as he was flung out of the car: “Extensive crush fractures of multiple bones at the vault of the skull and base of skull;” “fracture dislocation (neck);” “multiple fractures left ribs;” “internal bleeding chest,” and “bleeding on surface of brain and meninges (following head injury).” Ironically, though the report notes massive head injuries, the pathologist found no sign of a jaw fracture. Apparently, the puck that hit Mr. Horton and caused him such pain hadn’t broken the bone. But the report did reveal what killed the previously invincible hockey superstar; a broken neck and a crushed skull.
Tim Horton’s death certificate can be reduced to a single handwritten line: “lost control of car at high speed.” Horton was buried at York Cemetery in Toronto. It seemed that Horton had lived his life by the axium, “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” His death must be viewed in the context of his Era. In 1974, drinking and driving was not subject to the kind of moral condemnation that quite rightly attaches to it today. The drugs found on him and in his system were quite common for athletes back in the day. Most likely the 44-year-old Horton was taking speed to stay competitive in the NHL. After all, he was playing against younger, faster players who weren’t even born his rookie year.
Many wondered why the bruising, muscular Horton would have been taking Dexamyl, a drug most commonly marketed in the 1970s to busy housewives trying to lose weight. It was briefly in vogue with celebrities like author Ayn Rand and pop artist Andy Warhol before its addictive qualities were fully known. The pills, called “purple hearts” on the street, turned up regularly on the party scene back in the day. In a 1977 lawsuit against the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders football teams, a player claimed he was fed Dexamyl and other stimulants by team doctors to improve his performance. That case was settled out of court.
Most Tim Hortons customers have no idea that Horton was a bruising blue-liner in the last glory days of the Maple Leafs. If there is any irony in the premature end of Horton’s life on a dark Canadian highway, it is surely that the name of Canada’s most famous drunk driver now adorns hundreds of donut shops where so many late-night drivers stop for coffee to stay awake. But that doesn’t matter much for those seeking crullers, maple dips or an old fashioned. But when you think of it, a double chocolate donut does kind of resemble a hockey puck and might be a fitting tribute to the greatest defenseman to ever wear a Maple Leafs jersey. And you thought Tim Horton was just a donut.