IMLACH email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-09-20 published
George MARA, Hockey Player And Executive: (1921-2006)
Well-born amateur player who became the captain and key to Canada's gold-medal success at the 1948 Olympics later ran the Toronto Maple Leafs
By Tom HAWTHORN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S7
Victoria -- In 1947, the Cold War was chilling Europe. The Royal Canadian Air Force desperately sought recruits. They needed skaters, not pilots. The Olympic hockey tournament was just weeks away. Canadian officials had balked at sending a team, a decision that outraged senior Royal Canadian Air Force medical officer Sandy Watson. He persuaded the officials and his superiors to allow him to recruit a team from scratch.
The Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers, as they were dubbed, were whipped in their first exhibition game by a lightly regarded varsity team. The air force feared being humiliated on the world stage. The call went out for reinforcements, and George MARA was asked to sign up.
Mr. MARA, who had just turned 26, was a Toronto businessman and a navy veteran. He moonlighted as a forward for the Barker's Biscuits team in an amateur league in Toronto. A hard-skating player known for shifty stickhandling, he had a touch with the puck.
Mr. MARA answered his country's call. In doing so, he would add to hockey lore.
George Edward MARA was the namesake son of a well-known Toronto sportsman. The elder Mr. MARA had been a star inside wing with the Argonauts football team until a broken ankle ended his playing days. He then became a shareholder in the Ontario Jockey Club, and he belonged to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. His brothers were Bay Street stockbrokers. At one time, the family's liquor import business boasted the largest wine cellar in the Dominion, occupying almost an entire city block in downtown Toronto.
George Jr. grew up in privilege with a Cadillac in the garage and his own private rink in the backyard of the family home. He first won notice as a hockey player at Upper Canada College, where he was coached by retired Leafs star Gentleman Joe PRIMEAU. Mr. MARA led the prep-school circuit in 1939-40, recording 16 goals and five assists in six games. He scored two goals, including the winner, in a 6-1 victory over Saint Michael's to give his private school an undefeated season and its first hockey championship in more than 20 years.
He graduated to the Toronto Marlboros, where his skills attracted the attention of National Hockey League teams. The Detroit Red Wings' Jack Adams, who had him on the club's negotiating list, thought the prospect could find a starting role with the club in 1942. Instead, Mr. MARA joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.
He skated for a stellar navy team in the senior Ontario Hockey Association, served aboard a corvette and two minesweepers, and saw sea duty on the Newfoundland-Ireland run. He was promoted to lieutenant.
After the war, Mr. MARA attended the training camp of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Owen Sound, Ontario He turned down an offer to play for a minor-league team in the Leafs' system. He wound up, instead, on the roster of the Ontario Hockey Association's Toronto Staffords while tending to the family business, which had suffered with the death of his father on Christmas Day, 1942.
In January of 1946, the New York Rangers announced he had signed a contract. He was to play a game with the minor-league New York Rovers before joining the parent club. Mr. MARA suited up as a spare for a Rovers game against the Boston Olympics, but he never did join the Rangers, or play an National Hockey League game.
By the time the desperate Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers came looking for help, Mr. MARA was playing on the Barker's Biscuits team of the Toronto Hockey League. His recruitment happened after a chance meeting at Maple Leaf Gardens with prominent hockey official W.A. HEWITT, the father of hockey broadcaster Foster HEWITT. When Mr. MARA returned to his office, he found a message saying that Mr. HEWITT had called with an invitation to join the Olympic team. Mr. MARA balked, suggesting they try teammate Wally HALDER, a sales director for a chocolatier with whom he had also played in the navy during the war.
"I put the phone down and realized I was missing an exciting opportunity," he once told National Hockey League writer Mike Wyman. "So I called HEWITT back and said that I'd managed to make myself available."
When the Flyers goalie failed the physical, Mr. MARA suggested the Barker's goalie, Murray DOWEY, who would need a leave of absence from the Toronto Transit Commission.
The trio, with Mr. MARA as team captain, would be vital to a Canadian triumph.
The Olympic tournament, the first since the end of the Second World War, took place at a time when Europe was still suffering from the deprivations of war. The Canadian players were advised to pack their own bars of soap, as the item was still being rationed overseas.
The games were played on an outdoor rink in the winter playground of St. Moritz, Switzerland. The ice used for the skating surface, which was open to rain and snow, was poor. The rink had boards so low a skater could step over them as easily as climbing a sidewalk.
The Canadians struggled to adopt to rules forbidding hip checks, hitting near the boards, and playing the puck with a knee on the ice. As well, a player leaving the penalty box was expected to skate to his own blueline before returning to the play.
"They're not used to bodychecking there," Mr. MARA said on his return, "but how they hook and slash! We used to sizzle. Every game we played, we were determined not to get mad. Ten minutes after we'd start, we'd be boiling."
In one game, the incensed centre bowled over two opponents before poking another in the nose with his fist. A female fan tossed sand in his face and he was temporarily blinded. A teammate got hit by a snowball as he rushed the puck.
The Flyers cruised through most of the tournament, recording a 15-0 win over Poland before steamrolling over Italy 21-1. The team had six wins and a 0-0 tie with Czechoslovakia before meeting the Swiss in the gold-medal game before a partisan crowd. Canada won 3-0, as Mr. DOWEY recorded his fifth shutout in the tournament. The top scorers were Mr. HALDER (29 points) and Mr. MARA (17 goals and nine assists).
The trio rejoined the Barker's Biscuits team, but one can image that industrial-league hockey was less attractive after the excitement of the Olympics. Mr. MARA accepted the entreaties of Montreal Canadiens general manager Frank Selke. The centre was to play for the Montreal Royals before moving up to the parent Canadiens. He had collected eight points in seven games when an injury ended his season, as well as his playing career.
Stafford SMYTHE, the son of Conn SMYTHE, the owner of the Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, invited Mr. MARA to join a committee to operate the hockey club and its namesake building in 1957. In 1961, Conn SMYTHE sold control of the team and eight years later, after a power struggle, Mr. MARA found himself elected president. He held the post for a year before resigning.
During his tenure in Leafs management, Mr. MARA was known to skate with the team at practice. He was also involved in one of the more famous incidents in club history. During the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, defenceman Bobby Baun suffered a broken leg. In the dressing room, Mr. MARA and coach Punch IMLACH got into an argument about whether he could return to play. Mr. MARA counselled caution for an athlete whose livelihood depended on his good health, while the coach profanely made the opposite case. As it turned out, Mr. Baun skated on the broken leg, scoring the winning goal in overtime of Game 6. The Leafs completed their comeback with a victory over Detroit two nights later to claim their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Mr. MARA was long associated with the family firms and other industrial concerns, including the William Mara Company, founded in 1871, importers of wines and spirits, including such brands as Teacher's, Beefeater, and Hennessy, and Jannock Ltd., a diversified Toronto manufacturing company with operations in the sugar, brick, tubular steel and electrical products businesses. He also served on the boards of many charities.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the nation's sporting history came not on the ice but in the boardroom. Mr. MARA was one of the founders and inaugural chairman of the Olympic Trust of Canada, launched in 1970 as the fundraising arm of the former Canadian Olympic Association (now Canadian Olympic Committee).
Mr. MARA was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1976 for his tireless work in raising funds to support Canadian Olympians competing at the 1972 Munich and 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1989 as both an athlete and a builder, while Canada's Sports Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1993.
The Hockey Hall of Fame has in its collection Mr. MARA's captain's sweater from the Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers. So far, however, it has not seen fit to include him among the inductees.
George MARA was born on December 12, 1921, in Toronto. He died on August 30, 2006, while undergoing heart surgery. He was 84. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Margaret RODDICK, whom he married in 1947. He leaves a son and a daughter.
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