Tim’s Tale: From hockey sticks to stir sticks
In September 2011, I walked into a co-branded outlet of Cold Stone Creamery and Tim Hortons on West 42rd, just west of Times Square in midtown Manhattan, and ordered a medium coffee. The server surprised me by handing me a cup held in a sleeve, which you don’t encounter at a Tim’s back in Canada. The sleeve further surprised me by actually saying something about Tim Horton, which I never come across in Canada, either.
“FROM HOCKEY STICKS TO STIR STICKS” read the blurb title, which went on to explain: “Tim Horton, who was an NHL all-star defenseman for hockey clubs including the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres, established his coffee and donut shop in 1964. Tim Hortons has since become the fourth largest publicly-traded quick-service restaurant chain in North America”—a boast that would need to be repealed from subsequent cup sleeves, as the much larger Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc., owner of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins, had gone public on NASDAQ in late July.
Excerpt from Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time, by Douglas Hunter. Harper Collins Canada, 2012.
Horton’s likeness and information about him—mainly captured in a fundraising poster for the Tim Horton Memorial Children’s Camps— had begun to disappear from Tim’s outlets soon after the poster itself was created in 1992. The poster’s presence had been doomed by ongoing legal actions launched by Horton’s widow, Lori, over the terms of her sale of her half-interest in the restaurant company to Ron Joyce in 1975 and to what she claimed was an unauthorized use of her late husband’s image for the poster. The posters came down, even though both of Lori Horton’s suits failed in court. By the time Tim Hortons had merged with Wendy’s in 1995, what little material about Tim Horton that previously existed in the restaurants had all but disappeared from his namesake QSR chain.
Today Tim Horton is recognized on the corporate website as a cofounder of the chain, with Ron Joyce. A 1968 Hockey Night in Canada interview of Horton by Ward Cornell on the website features a personable, bright, and amusing Horton between periods in his Leaf uniform thanking the customers of what Cornell calls his “doughnut emporium.” The accompanying description on the website says: “Tim Horton was known for his generosity, modesty and quiet confidence. You can see for yourself, that he brought great passion and determination to his budding business. And, true to form, Tim Horton always had time to thank his loyal fans on and off the ice.” But Horton is otherwise absent from the Canadian consumer experience.
This is what made a few brief words about Tim Horton on a cup sleeve in midtown Manhattan such a surprise. Tim Horton the living, breathing individual, however tersely, had resurfaced in company consumer packaging. Back home, I knew Tim Horton would still be missing from the stores in the chain he helped found, beyond the highly stylized script of his autograph that served as its logo.
• • •
The basic recap of Tim Horton’s life is that he played twenty-six seasons of professional hockey as a right defenseman: the first three in the American Hockey League, from 1949/50 to 1951/52, the last twenty-three in the National Hockey League, from 1952/53 to 1973/74. His three AHL seasons were with one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ minor-league affiliates, the Pittsburgh Hornets. He then played nineteen seasons in Toronto, followed by a four-season shuffle that took him to New York, Pittsburgh, and lastly Buffalo. He won an AHL championship, the Calder Cup, with the Hornets, and four Stanley Cups with the Leafs. He was a Junior A first-team All Star with the St. Michael’s College Majors, a first-team All Star with the Hornets, and with the Leafs he made three second-team and three first-team appearances. In the 1962 playoffs, he set a points record for an NHL defenseman, with three goals and thirteen assists in twelve games. He never won the NHL’s Norris Trophy as its top defenseman, although many people thought he should have. He was forty-four years old, and had just played in his fifty-fifth game of the 1973/74 season for the Buffalo Sabres, when he was killed in a single-vehicle accident on the Queen Elizabeth Way at about 4:30 in the morning on February 21, 1974. He was inducted posthumously in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977. His number 7 is “honoured” in Toronto (the Leafs do not officially retire numbers any more); his number 2 is officially retired in Buffalo.
None of that tells you a thing about why his stylized signature is on the signage and products of Canada’s most successful QSR chain.
• • •
Professional hockey players of the 1950s and 1960s did not live in multimillion-dollar condos or estates in gated communities. The ones who married and started raising kids often lived in the new suburbs comprised of modest bungalows, side-splits and ranch houses, and they rubbed shoulders with the rest of the middle to upper-middle class. Dad might have an oddball job and be starring on television’s Hockey Night in Canada two nights a week, but the kids went to public schools like their friends, and the families attended the neighborhood church. Having an unlisted number (as Horton did) was one concession to privacy in a job that could encourage half the country to phone your house when you accidentally put the puck in your own net.
The 1960s were a last gasp of professional hockey players as national celebrities who also lived pretty well as ordinary Canadian folk. While their values may have remained very much of the communities and families they came from, their lifestyles would change tremendously. Horton lived through those changes, and embodied them. When he died, he had just begun to make what at the time seemed like astronomical amounts of money for a professional hockey player: $150,000 a season. And since the 1971/72 season, which he spent with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he had split his hockey salary with his restaurant partner, Ron Joyce, to keep Joyce working on the growth of the chain while he continued to star in the NHL.
When Horton’s speeding Pantera sportscar went off the QEW in St. Catharines, rolled in the median and flung Horton out the passenger door, his own life had accelerated to a precarious velocity. His wife, Lori, was battling alcohol and prescription pills, and according to Ron Joyce’s memoir, Horton had an apartment in Oakville, Ontario, near the restaurant company’s head office, where he was carrying on an affair. Horton himself had begun drinking again—his blood alcohol limit at the time of death as noted was more than twice the legal limit—and traces of barbiturate in his bloodstream and pills in his pocket indicated he had been taking the same highly addictive diet pills, Dexamyl, as Lori. He also had amphetamines in his pocket, which suggested that he had been using uppers to get through the grind of the NHL season at age forty-four.
He had been on his way back to Buffalo, after a losing effort against the Maple Leafs, to his suite in the Statler Hotel. It was suspected he had been playing with a broken jaw, and Horton wanted to keep a ten o’clock appointment that morning with the team’s doctor, John Butsch. The doctor instead ended up identifying his body at the hospital in St. Catharines, and the autopsy indicated the jaw was not in fact broken.
Horton had been on the road at such a late—or early—hour, because he had been holding an impromptu meeting with Joyce at the Oakville office. Horton had knocked back vodka and soda while they hashed out issues; a vodka bottle, its neck broken off, was found on the median at the crash site. The conversation, according to Joyce, was testy at times, but they had parted amicably, with Horton declaring, “I love ya, Blub”—a nickname that poked fun at Joyce’s waistline—and planting a kiss on his cheek before getting behind the wheel of his Pantera and speeding into oblivion and a peculiar mix of posthumous fame and infamy.
• • •
The parents of Tim Horton’s era did not dote on their hockey-playing kids. There were no Timbits minor sports programs, and moms and dads didn’t necessarily even bother seeing their sons play, defying today’s clichéd image of parents clutching a Tim Hortons coffee and cheering them on from the stands of a community rink. Horton’s only sibling, his younger brother Jerry (who died suddenly of a heart attack a few months after I interviewed him) doubted their parents ever saw Tim play much as a kid, as they weren’t interested in standing around in an unheated arena in sub-freezing weather.
Horton was born in 1930 in Cochrane, Ontario, to Aaron Oakley (“Oak”) and Ethel Horton. He was christened Miles Gilbert; tradition has it this was his father’s doing, but his mother made sure he was known as Tim. Cochrane had sprung up in 1910 at the junction of two railways, the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario and the National Transcontinental. The town failed to deliver on the promise of becoming the Winnipeg of northern Ontario. In the Depression, Oak Horton moved from job to job, distributing pop with a beverage company, working in the lumber business, and moving the family to the Quebec mining town of Duparquet, about twenty miles north of Noranda-Rouyn (which gave the Leafs Horton’s teammate and friend Dave Keon) so he could work in the Beattie gold mine. The family was in Duparquet from the time Horton was five until he was about eight, and it was where he began playing hockey, according to Jerry.
The Hortons returned to Cochrane in the late 1930s when Oak landed a patronage job with the provincial highway department. After that job vanished, Oak got on as a railway mechanic with Algoma Central, which meant he had to be away from his family for extended periods in Sault Ste. Marie. In 1945 he quit the Algoma Central and got a mechanic’s job with the CPR’s Sudbury District, and moved his family to the city.
It was next door to Sudbury, in the Inco mining town of Copper Cliff, that Horton began his rise to NHL stardom. In the fall of 1946 he made the Redmen of the Northern Ontario Junior league, and impressed with his rushing and scoring ability, his devastating hitting, and his willingness to fight.
The overwhelming source of new talent—even after NHL expansion in 1967—was the Junior amateur leagues of Canada, and the NHL was in firm control of the pipeline. As with the Tim Hortons chain and its pool of wannabee franchisees in Canada today, there were far more prospective players in the amateur system than there were NHL jobs. Until a universal amateur draft was introduced in 1969, NHL teams had formal affiliations with particular Junior clubs, and before kids appeared on these teams, their professional services were already spoken for. Scouts bird-dogged the hinterlands, securing rights when prospects were as young as fourteen.
Horton’s rookie performance with the Redmen was impressive enough to get him transferred to St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, despite the fact he was a churchgoing Protestant and St. Mike’s was run by the Basilian order of Catholic priests. St. Mike’s was home to the Majors, which had just won the Memorial Cup, the national Junior championship, and had produced a number of Leaf starters since the 1930s. Horton began to round out his game, playing more in his own end of the rink.
Horton was not a big man. He stood five-foot nine and in his prime was about 180 pounds. Like many players of his era he would be hard-pressed to make the NHL today, as any defenceman less than six feet tall now has a lot of proving to do. But he was incredibly strong, built like a Y. He could deliver clean, devastating hits and was impossible to move from out front of his own net. As a minor pro in Pittsburgh, he mastered a new tool of the game, the slapshot, which made him so effective on the point, especially on the power play. He was also bright, and coachable, and he made friends readily, both inside and outside the game, never limiting his social circle to hockey players.
While players could stay in Canadian Junior hockey until they were twenty-one, the promising talents were routinely fed into the professional system at eighteen or nineteen. Few graduated directly to the NHL: they first needed to continue maturing, physically and mentally, in the minor pros while also furthering their craft, although being sent far from home as a teen to do so could wind up being their undoing. Education was not an overwhelming concern, either for players or the hockey system. Prospects might have been able to finish high school, but it was a tall order to play top-tier Junior hockey and excel scholastically. Rare were the players who managed to attend a Canadian university or a U.S. college, play hockey there, and then have a professional career. A precious few savvy and ambitious NHL players like Billy Harris and Carl Brewer on the Leafs managed to pursue university degrees part-time, although the culture of the game meant management (which seldom had any post-secondary education itself) frowned on this sort of egghead behavior.
In the fall of 1951, the Leafs assigned Horton full-time to their AHL farm team in Pittsburgh, the Hornets. As a result he never did get his high school diploma, although his marks before he started playing Junior hockey with the Redmen and then the Majors had been those of a solid “B” student with a few moments of brilliance that had included a 93 in geography in grade 9.
Horton wrapped up his third season with the Hornets by winning the league championship, the Calder Cup, on the road in Providence, Rhode Island, against the Reds in April 1952. He returned to Pittsburgh to marry an American Ice Capades skater he’d met in Pittsburgh, Delores (“Lori”) Rose Michaelek, who was his first true girlfriend. He never danced and had no fashion sense, and she was nineteen and didn’t know a thing about hockey.
That fall, Horton made the Leafs lineup. The newlyweds rented a basement apartment where the only entertainment, as Horton would recall, was the radio. After about a year in the apartment, they ordered a bungalow without even inspecting the lot on which it was to be built in the Scarborough neighborhood of Wexford. Only when they moved in did they discover that the house, on the west side of Warden Avenue, south of Ellesmere Road, was just a few doors down from a railway that cut across Scarborough en route from Toronto to Peterborough. Regardless, they would stay there from 1953 to 1959 as they began to raise a family of four daughters. Had Tim and Lori Horton not bought that bungalow and moved to Wexford, and stuck with it long enough to meet a crucial circle of small business people, Tim Hortons the modern QSR restaurant phenomenon would not exist.
• • •
Scarborough’s grid of major thoroughfares today is thoroughly staked out by the company Horton founded, with outlets commanding vantage points on virtually all the main intersections where retail space is available. In this classic example of suburban sprawl, the standard QSR restaurant format with drive-through is king.
Driving the rectilinear perimeter of Horton’s old neighborhood in 2011, I visited six Tim’s in prime locations on the thoroughfare box (a little more than one mile long on each side) marked by Victoria Park Avenue in the west, Birchmount Drive in the east, Ellesmere Road to the north, and Lawrence Avenue to the south, with Warden Avenue running north-south through the middle. There are another twenty Tim Hortons locations within a major block or so of this perimeter. To the south of Lawrence, for example there are seven (counting the outlet at Victoria Park and O’Connor) along less than two miles of Eglinton Avenue east of the Don Valley Parkway. While my native Hamilton proudly argues for bragging rights as the most Tim’s-intensive (and loyal) place in the world, one would be hard pressed to find a place more infused with Tim Hortons outlets that cater to car-ensconced consumers than this area of west Scarborough. Were Tim Horton today for some reason wishing to escape his old neighborhood from his Warden bungalow without encountering a namesake restaurant, he would have only one way out: north on Warden, because the corner at Ellesmere, with its high-banked ground and a trestle carrying the trains that run past what was once his home, is hostile to any sort of commercial development.
Down the street from Horton’s Wexford home, at the northwest corner of Lawrence and Warden, is a compact drive-through of the chain that outlived him. It is a mere doughnut toss from the place where Tim Horton’s QSR adventures began.
• • •
Playing for the Leafs had brought Horton to Wexford and Scarborough’s incessant sprawl. Houses had become more than shelter, meals more than sustenance, cars more than transportation. Entertainment had emerged as a common denominator.
Horton may never had understood it, or tried to articulate it, but the concepts outside of hockey that he found attractive were all about mobility. Cars were about speed and freedom, and Horton’s father had made the switch from trains to automobiles as he opened a Shell station in North Bay, Ontario, in 1953, to provide the fuel for the growing ranks of tourists and vacationers. From the fuel to power them Tim Horton migrated to selling cars, before hitting upon further commercial possibilities of such a mobile culture. He was also focused on the urban/suburban landscape of opportunity of his adopted home, Scarborough, which included an emergent middle class.
In twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, the average weekly pay packets of hourly-rated wage earners in Canadian manufacturing tripled, from $30.15 to $91.65. Weekly salaried employees (both sexes) in manufacturing similarly leapt from $43.85 to $128.79; the men among them had seen their average weekly pay slip grow from $53.21 to $147.95. Postwar manufacturing—much of it in Ontario tied to the auto industry—was creating this new middle class and a new streetscape for their historic affluence. Scarborough’s housing development had taken off after the Second World War when what had initially been a site of munitions production was transformed into a manufacturing colossus known as the Golden Mile along Eglinton Avenue, to the south of where Horton came to live. Housing was affordable in the new suburbs, with bungalows like Tim and Lori’s costing two to three times an annual salary, and mortgage interest rates were low. Multilane highways were connecting distant centres as well as encouraging urban sprawl.
The nuclear family was the paramount institution of society, and it had not yet relinquished its central role in daily life. Divorce, for good or ill, was rare before Canada introduced the first comprehensive national divorce law in 1968. The urban society in which Horton launched his business ventures very much was a mirror of his own life. Dad earned the money, and mom stayed at home in suburbia, raising the kids. Meals, above all dinner, were a family affair, prepared from scratch and served at home. If you were away during the day, at work or school, lunch was something your wife or mom made you at home and packed in a lunch box for you.
Truckers, salesmen, and other mobile types had their diners. Travelers had restaurants in hotels. The mobility of the family changed restaurant offerings in two ways, both of which were tied to urgency. People on the move wanted (or appreciated) food that was made and served quickly—in other words, that was fast. They began to distinguish between restaurants as a destination that could be a focal point of an evening’s entertainment and socializing, and one that was a rapid calorie-consumption stop that could double as its own sort of entertainment. The grill and the deep fryer turned the meat and potatoes of a roast beef and mashed potatoes dinner into a burger and fries—food that didn’t necessarily require a table, a plate and cutlery, and could be carried away or eaten in a vehicle, even while driving.
Drive-in restaurants had begun appearing in the 1920s in lock step with the proliferation of the automobile, the number of which increased three hundred percent in the United States between 1915 and 1920. These restaurants evolved from simple roadside stands in more rural areas, migrating into (or being absorbed by) suburban sprawl. The most elemental aspect of the drive-in was that it was a roadside attraction with enough real estate for a standalone building and space that allowed patrons to park on the property.
The first roadside McDonald’s drive-in opened in San Bernardino, California, in 1946. In the 1950s the drive-in restaurant proliferated, with or without carhops or interior seating, wedding the grill menu produced by a compact kitchen with the mobility of the consumer who was either passing through or so was enamored with car culture that their eating and their driving fused in a new form of recreation. Land in suburbia was initially cheaper than in city centres, or at least was more available, and a restaurant could be conceived with a generous parking lot. While the drive-through restaurant was pioneered by the In-N-Out Burger chain in 1948 on the outskirts of Los Angeles in what is now Baldwin Park, California, the concept would not begin to flourish until the mid-1970s.
One of the appeals of this new restaurant business was the favorable relationship between income and receivables. Customers paid cash: you didn’t have to invoice them and then try to collect 30 days later. Bad debt with customers thus was virtually unheard of. Suppliers on the other hand generally invoiced you and gave you time to pay, and if you bought more of what they were selling, you got volume discounts, whereas the customers collectively didn’t pay you less for buying more. Seasonality could be a problem, and so could competition, especially with a customer that was by definition mobile and could easily take their business elsewhere. In the sprawl of suburbia, a drive-to/drive-in enterprise was generally one of many ranged along a major road or secondary highway. It didn’t adhere to normal criteria of restaurants that thrived by being in the heart of a business district, or near a theatre, a train station, a courthouse, or a library. These new enterprises weren’t particularly anywhere other than on the road to somewhere, and so were broadly accessible. You could pass by them as easily as you could go to them.
The quick-service restaurant was a gathering place, a social event. It was especially associated with youth culture: kids who grew up knowing only suburbia and cars, not Depression and war, in a period of burgeoning postwar affluence, with discretionary income of their own in the form of allowances and wages from part-time jobs. The baby boom was creating a new consumer group, and quick-service restaurants were largely catering to their tastes, or at least giving them tastes of their own that they would pass on to their own children.
In postwar culture the consumer’s ability to move quickly between once-distant (as measure by travel time) locations created an appetite that paradoxically desired both the exotic and the familiar. People traveled because they wanted to experience different things, but when they got there they often proved happy to experience exactly what they had at home. This was particularly true of business people who began to travel because they had to, not because they wanted to. The human need for predictability, for familiarity, helped give rise to franchise motel and hotel chains, and to restaurants that served essentially the same menu with essentially the same prices with essentially the same level of service. People didn’t just want something to eat. They wanted to scarf down a Big Mac, or to savour a Tim Hortons coffee and a snack pack of Timbits.
Concepts and mini-chains of QSRs came and went in these primordial days of a restaurant business model that tried to find the sweet spot between convenience, entertainment, and service. Their fare was ultimately a discretionary purchase: people stopped at service stations to fuel up their cars because they had to, whereas QSRs in urban or suburban settings were rarely a necessary visit. People could always eat at home if they really tried, or if they had to when money was tighter, but those conditions also applied to more formal, sit-down restaurants. QSR, while discretionary, offered a competitive advantage over casual and fine dining concepts. QSR could endure through harder times if it had the right sort of product: a food, beverage, or treat that was inexpensive, that was capable of staying on the personal or household budget as a minor form of entertainment, and that could be scaled back if necessary but not completely eliminated. A half-century before Tim Hortons chased consumers with television advertising campaigns in uncertain economic times to get them to part with a dollar or two for a discretionary summer treat like a smoothie or a box of Timbits, the essential strategic advantage of its QSR niche was waiting to be exploited on a chain-wide scale.
One of the first such chains to do so was Dairy Queen, a departure from the standard drive-in grill menu, which was founded on a soft ice cream product introduced in 1938. The first franchise opened in Joliet, Illinois, in June 1940, and the chain began expanding massively after the war. From 100 stores in 1947, the number ballooned to 1,446 in 1950; five years later, there were 2,600.
Dairy Queen in particular and ice cream in general proved to be elemental to the Tim Hortons story. They were front and center in the founding of the coffee-and-donut chain, and ice cream has returned to the forefront of the corporate narrative as the company has sought new growth by co-branding Tim Hortons and Cold Stone Creamery outlets.
It is common knowledge among those familiar with the essential Tim Hortons story that Ron Joyce, the partner of Horton who built the chain into a national phenomenon, was a Dairy Queen franchisee when he decided to try his luck with the hockey player’s new concept. It is far less well known that Dairy Queen and ice cream, along with drive-ins, were on hand at the very start of Tim Horton’s efforts to find a long-term alternative to life in professional hockey. To see how, we have to meet the Hannigan boys.