OVER THE PAST HUNDRED YEARS, OUR CATCHMENT HAS PRODUCED ATHLETES LUMINOUS IN OUR IMAGINATION
STORY BY Adam Proteau
ILLUSTRATIONS BY Stephanie Cheng
APRIL 2018 ISSUE
Marilyn Bell fought aggressive eels, Sweet Daddy Siki wrote his own theme song and George Chuvalo fought 93 times and never went down
There are skaters, runners, swimmers, grapplers. There are scullers, scrappers and riders. You could debate this list and its order forever. But, more than a ranking, we hope it’s a discovery, a reminder of the great athletes who walked – and swam, fought and jumped – among us.
RUBIN "HURRICANE" CARTER
Rubin Carter was born in Clifton, N.J., in 1937 and was a ferocious middleweight boxer. But the saga of “The Hurricane” – he was wrongfully imprisoned 19 years for murder before being cleared of all charges in 1985 – landed him in Toronto in 1989. Thanks in part to an Annex-based advocacy group that aided his fight for freedom, he was a Torontonian – a West End Torontonian, living on Concord Ave. – for his final 25 years. He died in 2014 as a fighter for justice and a voice for the wrongfully accused. He died in Toronto, the city in which he found peace.
Growing up in northwest Toronto and attending Runnymede Collegiate, Lori-Ann Muenzer carved out a place in Canadian Olympic history by winning gold in the women’s match sprint finals at the 2004 Athens Games—the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in cycling. The 51-year-old has amassed 13 National titles and 11 World Cup medals.
Growing up in the Alderwood area of Etobicoke, Lisa Bentley competed in track and field at St. Ambrose Catholic School and Michael Power -St. Joseph High School, but she didn’t enter her first triathlon until she attended the University of Waterloo. At that point, she’d found her athletic calling, and has since represented Canada at the 1995 Pan Am Games and won 11 Ironman championships – despite being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 1988.
GEORGE WASHINGTON ORTON
Canada’s first Olympic medallist, Orton was born in Strathroy, Ont., but lived in Toronto while attending U of T. He excelled at soccer and cricket, but is most famous for winning gold at the 1900 Paris Games in the 2,500-metre steeplechase, and bronze in the 400-metre hurdles.
Ted Toogood’s surname is a thing of beauty, perfectly encapsulating what he was for the Toronto Argonauts and University of Toronto in the 1950s. The halfback and kick returner won two Grey Cups and turned two punts into touchdowns in one game – back when blocking wasn’t allowed on kick returns. He was Ryerson University’s first athletic director and established its football team.
ABDI "ANTAR" ABDIKARIM MOHAMED
If you took a Toronto cab in the past few decades, your driver may have been Somalian soccer icon Abdi Abdikarim Mohamed. Known as ‘Antar’ – “hero” – and regarded as Somalia’s Wayne Gretzky for leading the national team during its soccer heyday, the tall and elegant footballer emigrated to Toronto in 1989
Earl Walls was known as The Hooded Terror (for entering the ring with a towel over his head) or The Windsor Walloper (for his knockout punch—27 in 44 fights, 14 in the first round) in his fighting days, long before he became a Toronto realtor and resident of the Kingsway. Born in 1928, he started boxing at 19, won the Ontario Amateur and Canadian Heavyweight championships, and was ranked fifth in the world before his sudden retirement in 1955. Walls, who died in 1996, is a member of the Canadian Boxing and Afro-American Sports halls of fame.
Gail Kim’s formative years were spent near Jane and Eglinton and at York Memorial High School. However, the 41-year-old – who just completed a hall-of-fame professional wrestling career that included eight championships in World Wrestling Entertainment and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling – went on to see the world because she fought like hell for respect. Not just from wrestling fans, but also from the industry itself. “The travel and politics of the business were the hardest parts,” said Kim, who retired in February and currently is easing into a trainer’s role with Toronto-based Impact Wrestling. “The wrestling part is the easiest once you know what you’re doing.”
Norman Clarke led Oakwood Collegiate to four city titles in five years in the late 1970s before leaving to play NCAA basketball at St. Bonaventure University. After college, he tried out for, and made, Canada’s national team, representing his country at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul under coach Jack Donahue. He is regarded as one of the pioneering Canadian ballplayers who paved the way for the modern age of young stars, returning to coach at Oakwood and staying involved in amateur basketball in the city.
Jerome Drayton was born in Germany, but moved to Toronto in 1956, attending Mimico High School and joining the Toronto Olympic Club of running. He set Canada’s marathon record on Dec. 7, 1975, when he finished in 2:10:09 – and in the 42 years since, no Canadian runner has come within 19 seconds of it. The 12-time Canadian champion also was the first Canadian in 29 years to win the Boston Marathon.
Recently honoured by Central Tech, Sam Richardson was a supernova at the Bathurst and Harbord school: He made the 1934 British Empire Games (precursor to the Commonwealth Games) as a 17-year-old student, winning gold in long jump and silver in triple jump. He raced at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – befriending American icon Jesse Owens while there – and his Canadian relay team finished fifth. Richardson died in 1989, but his legacy still shimmers.
One of the NHL’s finest-ever playmakers, Adam Oates was born and raised in Weston and had a goal and an assist in his first NHL game. The six-time Lady Byng finalist played in five All-Star Games and had the fifth-highest assist total (1,079) of any player when he retired in 2004. The Hockey Hall of Fame inducted him into its ranks in 2012.
SWEET DADDY SIKI
For 18 years, Reginald “Sweet Daddy” Siki, the flamboyant African-American grappler with the dyed white hair and goatee, sold out Maple Leaf Gardens, starred atop wrestling cards across Canada and around the world, won championships and crushed the sport’s racial barriers. The native Texan moved to Toronto in 1961 and never left, living in Parkdale and working as a karaoke DJ in the East End, at the Duke. In fact, the 77-year-old still does, every Saturday.
Living in Etobicoke made it easy for Avelino Gomez to head to Woodbine Racetrack and go about his job, which was winning thoroughbred horse races. The Cuban-born jockey excelled at it, the first to the finish line in 4,078 races, including four Queen’s Plates. Sadly, he died on the backstretch, doing what he loved. He now has a statue at Woodbine.
Molly Killingbeck emigrated from Jamaica to Canada in 1972, studied at York University and eventually settled in South Etobicoke. She won silver in the 4x400-metre relay at the 1984 L.A. Olympics; she’s also a two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist and a Pan Am Games silver medallist.
In the 1970s, Oakmount Park (now Park Lithuania) at Keele and Glenlake was a basketball oasis where a kid could find first-rate competition day or night. Fortunately for Leo Rautins, that was approximately 100 yards from where he lived. And he made the most of it. “I was so lucky,” Rautins said of his childhood. “The West End was great for me, for sports, for the diversity. I couldn’t have been luckier.”
Rautins parlayed a superb high school career at St. Michael’s into stints at the University of Minnesota and Syracuse University before the Philadelphia 76ers picked him 17th overall in 1983 and made him the first-ever Canadian selected in the NBA draft’s first round. Injuries hampered his playing career, but the 57-year-old helped clear a path for Canadians in pro basketball. And when the Florida resident is back in town, he returns to the West End. “I love coming back and eating at familiar spots like Vesuvio’s and Nodo in the Junction,” Rautins said. “Your old stomping grounds, that’s always a comfort when you come back.”
P.K. Subban is a charisma turbine, always whirring and generating. But he wouldn’t have such extraordinary social cachet if he didn’t have commensurate on-ice talent. And he does. A daring, creative player, he was the NHL’s best defenceman in 2013 and earned Olympic and IIHF World Championship gold medals. His West End bona fides are a childhood on Arborwood Dr. in Rexdale and playing in arenas like Pine Point at Hwy. 401 and Weston Rd. and Chris Tonks Arena at Eglinton and Black Creek Dr.
Abby Hoffman grew up in the Junction and learned to skate at Humberside C.I.’s outdoor rink. An excellent skater, she wanted to join a team in the Toronto Hockey League, but there were none for girls, so the nine-year-old cut her hair and played her way onto a boy’s team. Hoffman’s gender was eventually revealed, when, chosen for an all-star team, she had to show her birth certificate, and it was a front-page controversy. An avid all-round athlete who also played basketball and swam competitively, she eventually focused on track and field, representing Canada at four Olympics, four Pan Am Games and two Commonwealth Games. She won the Pan Am’s 800-yard run in 1963 and 1971, and claimed a Commonwealth gold in the 880 yards in 1966.
A world-championship oarsman with international acclaim, Ned Hanlan was a West End Torontonian by sheer force of nature: His family initially lived on Toronto Island’s east side, but a massive storm pushed their home to the island’s west (now known as Hanlan’s Point). The world’s best sculler from 1880 to 1884, Hanlan won 294 of 300 races in his competitive career.
Geraldine Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1967, but her family moved to North York one year later. The Emery Collegiate grad grew into one of the most decorated women’s hockey stars in the sport’s history: Over an 18-year playing career, she won seven IIHF World Championships and a silver and a gold medal at the Olympics. Heaney revolutionized the defence position in the women’s game with her strong offence-minded play. In 2013, she became the third woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Paul Coffey was born in Weston and he learned how to skate on the outdoor ice at Martingrove and Westway rinks. A Hockey Hall of Fame member, he won four Stanley Cups, three Norris Trophies and three Canada Cups. He is second all-time in career goals (396), assists (1,135), and points (1,531) by an NHL defenceman, reimagining the position in the offence-first era of ’80s and ’90s NHL hockey.
Ken Dryden’s athletic achievements are staggering. In just seven NHL seasons, he won six Stanley Cups, five Vezina Trophies as the league’s best goaltender, a Calder Trophy as top rookie, and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable post-season player. He’s been a Hockey Hall of Fame member since 1983, the first year he was eligible. But the 70-year-old Dryden’s feats on the ice were matched – and some would say surpassed – by his incredibly eloquent writings on the game, on life in Canada, and what he learned as a federal politician for York Central over seven years of public service.
It has been a remarkable life for Dryden, who, after all these years, still considers himself “an Etobicoke kid.”
“I grew up in Humber Valley, I grew up in Etobicoke, and those were my identifications,” Dryden said. “If I travelled anywhere, I would say I was from Toronto, and the first few years in Montreal I was from Toronto. But probably mid-career in Montreal, if people asked me, I’d say, ‘I’m from Etobicoke. I’m not a Toronto kid, I’m an Etobicoke kid.’ It’s the schools I went to, it was the playgrounds, it was the friends I had, and it was the pride of being in Etobicoke at a time when, so far as we were concerned, Etobicoke was a completely special place…that’s where I grew up, and it was not Toronto. Toronto was a place where we’d play games – we played at Leaside Arena in East York, and Ted Reeve in the East End, and Varsity and St. Mike’s. But that was essentially what Toronto was. It was a place to visit, a place where there were things to do. But Etobicoke was a place to live.”
Dryden’s memories of his youth include Biff Burger (on the Queensway west of Islington), Freddie’s Donuts on Dundas (across from the old Michael Power high school), and Vesuvio’s pizza. He’s lived downtown for 35 years, but he’s spring-boarded from that idyllic Etobicoke upbringing to a greater understanding of what it is to be a Torontonian and a Canadian.
“The city is a continuously more interesting place,” Dryden said. “It is probably the most successful example in the world of people who have different backgrounds living together.”
In 1947, nine-year-old Marilyn Bell started taking swimming lessons at Oakwood and St. Clair. In 1954, 16-year-old Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. She entered the cold water at Youngstown, New York, and spent 20 hours and 59 minutes battling aggressive eels, driving winds and five-metre waves. It was a 51.5-kilometre swim, lengthened to 64 kilometres by the current. When she emerged onto the CNE grounds, she was met by a crowd of thousands. Later, she also became the youngest person to swim the English Channel and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Five-time Canadian Heavyweight Champ George Chuvalo grew up in Toronto’s hardscrabble Junction neighbourhood, on Hook Ave. He attended Humberside C.I., and trained in Earlscourt, was regularly seen in Rexdale and Weston and all across the West End. He had a granite chin: He was never knocked down during his amateur boxing days or his 22-year, 93-professional-fight career. Now 80, Chuvalo still makes public appearances, his legendary status indisputable: How many people can say they had punching contests with Muhammad Ali (twice!), Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Floyd Patterson and weren’t even moved off their feet?
After escaping residential school in Brantford, Ont., Onondaga marathoner Tom Longboat went on to become one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
SEE Longboat’s EXPANDED STORY ON PAGE 20 of WEP's April 2018 Issue
Joey Votto grew up in Etobicoke and thrived in local baseball fields like Connorvale Park, near Kipling and Horner. Playing solely for the Cincinnati Reds for the past 11 years, the 34-year-old first baseman has become the greatest Canadian baseball star in the country’s history, winning the National League’s MVP Award in 2007, appearing in five all-star games, and earning two Lou Marsh Trophies as Canada’s top athlete. The Richview Collegiate alumnus has a career .313 batting average, a Gold Glove Award, 257 career home runs and 830 runs batted in – but perhaps even more impressive, he played in 162 games while posting a remarkable 11.7 strikeout rate in a league where strikeouts have become endemic.
Before the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted him into its ranks in 2013, before the three Stanley Cups he earned in Detroit, before the Olympic gold medal and IIHF World Championship gold medal and the Canada Cup victory, Brendan Shanahan was your typical West Toronto kid. He patronized Sherway Gardens – not so much to shop, but to make the scene as teenagers did in the early 1980s. He tobogganed down Etobicoke’s Centennial Hill in winters, ate well at the San Remo Bakery on Royal York Rd., took the train to see movies as far east as the old Runnymede Theatre in Bloor West Village.
And he was a Leafs fan. When he was growing up, Darryl Sittler was a blue and white wizard with a stick and a puck, Börje Salming was blazing a trail for European players, and Lanny McDonald was the bush-lipped embodiment of heart and soul. When they were lighting it up inside Maple Leaf Gardens, Shanahan was learning the game at Centennial Park Arena (always bringing that sled when one of his three older brothers was at the rink playing) or at Long Branch Arena, tucked into a park south of Lake Shore Boulevard; or at Mimico Arena near Royal York and Lake Shore.
But then, when he was 14 years old and head over heels for hockey, Shanahan decided that, to really get good, he’d have to take a different approach to the sport: He was going to knowingly, willingly put himself in uncomfortable situations.
That attitude adjustment was what made him the best athlete West Toronto has ever produced, and the man now guiding the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Born in 1969, Shanahan left Toronto at age 16 for London, Ont. – where Sittler played and starred with the OHL’s Knights – and over the course of the next two seasons scored 67 goals and 154 points in 115 regular-season games. He also amassed 198 penalty minutes in those 115 games, taking care of himself and his teammates and endearing himself to the locals. But his wasn’t a story arc that began with a child prodigy athlete. This was no LeBron James- or Wayne Gretzky-type situation.
Gaining elite status, Shanahan says, would have surprised anyone who knew him in Mimico.
“Anybody growing up in Etobicoke who played with me would have said, ‘He was a good player, but I would have picked four or five guys who would have made the NHL before him,’” says Shanahan. “It wasn’t a certainty that I was going to have an NHL career, let alone a successful one….If somebody that I grew up with would say, ‘Yeah, we knew this was going to happen,’ they would just be really politely lying.”
But after an admittedly tough rookie campaign with the New Jersey Devils in 1987–’88, here’s what did happen: Shanahan produced at least 20 goals in each of his 20 full NHL seasons. Twice, he hit the 50-goal plateau: In those two 50-goal seasons combined, he had 103 goals and 196 points, but also combined for 385 penalty minutes. As in London, he’d been producer and protector. That was an attractive skill set for a lot of teams, making him a hot property and still a young piece around whom you could build a winner. He went from New Jersey to St. Louis to Hartford before a 1996 trade sent him to Detroit’s Red Wings.
Detroit was where player and organization made a perfect match. Shanahan commanded respect the moment he entered the dressing room and his work ethic remained relentless. The results were immediate: In his first year as a Wing, Shanahan won his first Stanley Cup in 1997 and contributed nine goals and 17 points in 20 playoff games. The next season – in which Detroit also won the Cup, making it back-to-back wins – Shanahan had five goals and nine post-season points. And remember, many of those years were the NHL’s Dead Puck Era, in which offensive-minded players were bearhugged, piggybacked and practically fitted with a saddle as opponents openly conspired to constrain them from displaying their offensive skills.
During his years in Detroit, Shanahan and his Canadian teammates also took gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, avenging a fourth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics. And in winning the tournament, he joined The Triple Gold Club, the smallest, most glorious club in all of hockey, composed of 22 people who’ve won Olympic gold, a world championship gold and a Stanley Cup.
“You need a goal, he’ll get it,” Frank Jay, an NHL scout for New Jersey at the time Shanahan was drafted, told the London Free Press in 2003. “You want him to play physical, he’ll play physical. You need leadership, he’ll give it to you.”
When Shanahan retired in 2009, he unofficially led active NHL players in Gordie Howe hat tricks (a goal, an assist and a fight in a single game) with 17; he remains tied for second among all-time NHL leaders by scoring 656 goals over 1,524 games; when he retired, he led active NHL players for goals scored; and he is the only player in league history with more than 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes.
Shanahan lives downtown now – a fact he admits to sheepishly when he encounters Mimico-area friends. But he likes that some things haven’t changed. When he drives to the Leafs’ practice facility in Mimico he passes his old haunts and is happy the little bakeries and fish-and-chip shops have survived. “I like that there’s still the family businesses and that not everything has become homogenized,” Shanahan said. “I like that, downtown, the city has grown and it’s pretty diverse, but I also like that the old ’hood is still the old ’hood.”
He’s also happy his initial years building the Leafs have gone about as well as could be hoped for. The players are challenging for home ice in the 2018 playoffs, there’s a generational talent on board in Auston Matthews, a deep supporting cast of young talent, and one of hockey’s greatest coaches in Mike Babcock. And the best part: There’s no better place in the hockey world to have success in than Toronto.
When he looks back at his playing career, he can easily pick out what he’s most proud of.
“It was that approach I started taking when I was 14 or 15 years old for hockey – always be willing to get out of the comfort zone. That’s the biggest thing. That’s helped me in my career and in retirement,” he says. “It wasn’t the journey of just making it. It was the journey of each and every season, taking the next step, even at the point in your career where it’s just about how to prolong it.”
As evidence, Shanahan points to the most recent job he’s taken on: the NHL’s chief disciplinarian.
“When the NHL called me [in 2011] and asked me to [head the discipline department], I’d already been working for the league for a couple of years and had a pretty easy existence,” Shanahan says. “I was…comfortable. And they called and asked me if I would consider the following season taking over discipline. And I remember my wife saying – when she overheard someone telling me that it’s referred to as the worst job in hockey – ‘That’s how I knew you were taking it.’ ”
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