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Tim Horton immortalized: “It was a good day”

Hard to believe it, but there are now over 200 Tim Hortons cafe and bake shops dotting the landscape across Western New York. Countless more stores are located across the bridge and into Canada. What small town or burg in Ontario does not have their very own Timmy-Ho’s?

So some might have raised their eyebrows and wondered why the opening of yet another Hortons cafe and bake shop, this one on the corner of Main And Scott streets at Canalside, merited headline news and the top story on yesterday’s evening newscasts.

But this Tim Hortons opening was special. Very special. For one thing, it heralded the official opening of the first component of HarborCenter, the mammoth multi use structure which is already transforming Canalside into a year round happening destination.

Sabres president Ted Black and Tim Horton's three daughters unveil the statue of Tim Horton, now proudly standing on the very site of Horton's final playing days.

Sabres president Ted Black and Tim Horton’s three daughters unveil the statue of Tim Horton, now proudly standing on the very site of Horton’s final playing days.

More importantly, yesterday’s opening celebrated Tim Horton, the man, the hockey player, the individual that was one of the building blocks of the early days of the Buffalo Sabres franchise. Who left an indelible mark on the team and whose name and number hang proudly from the rafters at First Niagara Center.

When coach Punch Imlach was summarily fired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1970 after winning four Stanley Cups for their team in the 60s (Toronto hasn’t won a Cup since), he came to Buffalo and boldly promised that the fledgling Buffalo Sabres would be the first expansion team to win a championship. Buffalo drafted first that year, selected Gilbert Perreault and built the team around their hot prospect. And what Imlach did was recruit a lot of retreads and over the hill players from his former squad in Toronto.

The team wasn’t that good during that first season. But the Sabres captured the hearts and support of the community. Demand for tickets spiked as the old Aud was expanded, and even with 5000 new seats in the oranges a Buffalo Sabres ticket was a hot and precious commodity for much of the 70s.

Prior to the 1972-73 season, Imlach managed to pluck one of his former prized assets off the waiver wire – Tim Horton was being let go from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo snatched him up, even offering Horton the then unheard of sum of $100,000 to come and play in Buffalo. It was a steal. Horton was one of the strongest and toughest players on the Toronto roster… he was so intimidating that nobody wanted to fight him. His character and his presence in the Leafs locker room helped catapult them to four championships, and they were a dominant force for most of that decade in the NHL.

Horton’s contributions to the Leafs were so great that his name and number hang from the rafters at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, banners that also enshrine some of the veritable gods of hockey who played for the Leafs over the last century.

And here in Buffalo? Oh did he become a force. The record will show that he only scored one goal in the 124 games he played for the Buffalo Sabres. But his steadying influence, his leadership in the locker room, his mentoring of young defensemen such as Jim Schoenfeld, Bill Hajt and Jerry Korab, were invaluable as the ragtag Sabres made their improbable run to the playoffs in only the third season of their existence. Who could forget game 5 that year at the Forum in Montreal, Rene Robert scoring in overtime to beat Scotty Bowman’s Habs and force a game 6 in Buffalo. Who could forget a loud and packed Aud contingent chanting “Thank You Sabres” two days later as Montreal won that night to take the series. Grainy video still exists of that moment and it still brings chills down the spine, even to Sabres fans who weren’t alive back then or too young to remember.

Horton was a huge part of that success and accomplishment, and why the Sabres are cemented and bonded to this community to this day. His life was tragically cut short when he crashed his vehicle on the QEW the morning of February 21, 1974. Driving too fast, too much liquor. The Sabres had a game at home that night, and news traveled throughout the day as to what had happened. The game against Atlanta that night went on as planned; players from both teams wore black armbands. Defenseman Jim Schoenfeld wept openly as a moment of silence was observed. The sadness of the moment permeated throughout the building, and players who were on that squad that season will admit to this day that was the saddest moment in the franchise’s history.

The Sabres went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 1974-75, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. Might the Sabres have won it all had Horton still been alive and in a Buffalo uniform? One will never know but the discussion makes for great hockey fodder, and one thing is for sure: the thuggish players who constituted the Flyers lineup would not have messed with the Sabres with Horton on the blue line. He was a player to be feared.

What was important about all of yesterday’s hoopla was not another donut shop. It was the enshrinement of a man who made a difference for Buffalo. A store. And a statue. So that fathers can take their sons and point to Horton and shares the stories of their youth, when they were wide eyed youngsters watching their heroes on the ice for the first time.

When Tim Horton’s three daughters come to town to commemorate their dad, it matters. When a new signature Tim Hortons shop opens, branded in Sabres’ blue and gold, it matters. When a restaurant doubles as a veritable museum, celebrating Horton’s career, displaying memorabilia of the old Aud and the Erie Canal and offering visitors yet another attraction at Canalside, it matters. When the CEO of Tim Hortons USA comes to Buffalo, bearing a gift of a statue to the people of Buffalo and Western New York, it matters.

And that is why yesterday was a good day for Buffalo. And with HarborCenter opening this weekend, what will be plenty of more good days. Best of all, Sabres president Ted Black said, “we’re just getting started.”

Just what we wanted to hear.

  • W. McDonald

    This guy done nothing for this community and did not have big numbers for the sabres, but just because he helped with development with young players does not mean that his number should be retired in Buffalo or that a statue was built near the Harbor Center. There are many other players that had the same or even more influence on young players here in Buffalo then Tim Horton. Retiring his number out of respect is not for the right reasons to do this, just look up above and see the other numbers that were retired.

    • rastamaniac

      You lost me at “this guy done nothing.” Carry on Cap’n Buzzkill.

    • Peter Farrell

      If you haven’t noticed. Horton’s number has been retired by the Sabres for quite some time. 1996 to be exact back when they still played at The Aud. Horton is also in the Hockey Hall of Fame, unlike three other Sabres who have had their number retired(Gare, Martin, Robert). He deserved the honors given to him.

      • W. McDonald

        It’s what you done here as a Buffalo Sabre, not what you did on other teams. Playing two years as a Buffalo Sabre his numbers don’t exactly jump out at you. If any team should have retired his number it should have been Toronto Maple Leafs that is where his numbers were Hall of Fame numbers.

      • David Staba

        Have you ever watched a hockey game? It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever watched a hockey game.

      • W. McDonald

        David, are you that ignorant? Me making that statement you come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything about hockey. This is the problem with the world today, is people like yourself have no clue on what you read. For your information, I currently live in Georgia, but I travel to the Buffalo Sabres games as far north as Nashville and a far south as Sunrise, FL. Also I lived and grew-up playing hockey in Angola, NY. So before you come back with a comment, please know what you are talking about.

      • Kevin Hickey

        For your information, I currently live in Georgia…

        That explains it.

  • UncleBluck

    I remember that 75′ series with the Flyers. People think there is a lot of fighting in hockey nowdays but its nothing compared to what went on back them especially with the Flyers. I have to disagree with the author about the Flyers being too intimidated by Horton to fight cause Dave Shultz from that Flyers team, as much as I hated the guy, would not have backed down from Horton or anyone else in the league……

  • DanDMan

    Nice article Andy, fun read. You lost me however, with your line “So that fathers can take their sons and point to Horton and share the stories of their youth…” Seriously? This is 2014 and you write that. How about all the females? Mothers, daughters, single women. Have you never heard of mothers taking their children (boys and girls) to hockey games? Playing hockey? Coaching hockey? Its true Andy, men and women of all ages have been participating in and enjoying hockey, since the games inception. Plenty of females filled the seats at the old aud and are in the stands at the Sabres current home too. Now stop being a sexist pig Andrew. You more then others, should know first hand that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and equality.

    • Andrew Kulyk

      “Sexist pig”, ouch.

      My mom, God rest her soul, was a huge sports fan and we attended many a Buffalo Bisons and Buffalo Sabres game together, and she loved coming along with me and my friends. Even after age and illness slowed her down and she could no longer get to the games in person, she would love to tune in to the Euros and the World Cup to cheer on her beloved German national team in soccer.

      Thanks for calling me out…So props to all the sports moms out there as well!