Pieces of hockey history sold to museum for $2M
‘Preserver” of game’s treasures hopes items go on permanent display
Mike Wilson can get worked up about hockey history.
So worked up that on the day he sold nearly $2 million worth of hockey memorabilia to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Wilson was moved to tears — not of joy, but raw emotion — at the prospect of handing off personal treasures he has been collecting for more than 50 years.
“This should be our Smithsonian,” Wilson says of the emerging hockey collection. “Every Canadian should have the opportunity to know not only what identifies us as Canadians, but also as a nation.”
With that, a small museum audience erupted in applause while the collector collected himself.
The world is impossibly small. In the 1960s, Wilson and I were in the same elementary school class in Scarborough, and so Friday’s conference became an impromptu school reunion. My neighbour’s father was a chauffeur to Leafs owner Conn Smythe, and thus I came upon some game-used NHL sticks, cracked or chipped, but some in good condition. I used the sticks, never gave a thought to mounting or preserving them, all while Wilson was quietly amassing his vast collection. Not imagining where it would lead.
“Everyone collected cards and coins,” he says, of the days before the internet and mass media stole attention spans. “I just took it further.”
No kidding. He just handed over the keys to a collection of 1,700plus hockey artifacts, featuring 430 objects (including a rare Gretzky Northland stick) and 1,300 archival items. Nearly all of it is related to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the obsession of his youth, including the very dressing room door he used to hang around, hoping to see a Leafs player. Today that old Maple Leaf Gardens door has 80 Leaf player signatures on it.
A decent hockey player in his day, Wilson got into the brokerage business, where he forged more hockey contacts, mined more stories.
That his Maple Leafs collection would ultimately take up space in the neighbourhood of the rival Ottawa Senators just might cause late Senators general manager Bryan Murray to stir from his heavenly perch, but Wilson gets it. The passion, the friendly jabs among hockey partisans is what it’s about.
Wilson, 63, is pals with Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who showed up at his house in a Senators track suit. Wilson forgave him because Melnyk helped save St. Mike’s Arena in Toronto.
Another time Wilson opened the door to his museum/home in Toronto to see two men in Montreal Canadiens hats. Wilson had barely finished rolling his eyes when Howie Morenz Jr. introduced himself. The son of the Habs icon and his own son wanted to see the famous Leafs collection.
The home display, designed by Scott Veber of the Hockey Hall of Fame, has been seen by billionaires, rock musicians, astronaut Chris Hadfield and hockey players named Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Derek Sanderson and Jason Spezza among others.
“Once they see the stuff, they start telling stories,” Wilson says. “They were all kids, too.”
A war veteran, Wilson’s grandfather, saw a poster of Foster Hewitt and remembered the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts overseas during the war.
“You observe a piece, it takes you back to a moment in time with your team,” Wilson says.
The sale to the Canadian Museum of History came by accident. Curator Jenny Ellison was looking for items for the museum’s Canada 150 Hockey exhibit, and was stunned at the depth and quality of Wilson’s collection. The museum used 50 of his pieces for the current 280-item exhibit (which closes Oct. 9 before hitting the road to Montreal and Winnipeg).
With Wilson making succession plans, further discussions led to the sale of Wilson’s larger collection (minus a mere 500 pieces he will have left over).
As the self-described “gatekeeper” to the stories and “preserver” of Canadian hockey history, Wilson imagines a permanent homegrown hockey collection in Ottawa.
Time will tell. A museum “plays the long game,” Ellison says, not the five-year game. Some of the precious items, including a bloodstained Frank Finnigan sweater, need special care. Yet, hockey looms large in the Canadian imagination, as the traffic to the reigning Hockey exhibit — 154,000 visitors since March, and counting — would attest.
“I’m confident these items are going to be on display forever,” Ellison says. “This is the right place for them … whether it’s a permanent collection or in the Canada History Hall.”
Wilson sees a place for all it — the history of the women’s game, the Coloured Hockey League of Nova Scotia, hockey among Aboriginals.
If it takes some corporate money, so be it.
“Scotiabank just paid $800 million for the naming rights to an arena (the ACC),” Wilson says. “You’re telling me there isn’t a corporation out there that can spend a fraction of that to protect the heritage of our country?”
On Saturday at 10 a.m., Wilson will be back at the Canadian Museum of History’s resource centre to share stories with visitors, including the mystery of the “lost” 1962 Leafs Stanley Cup banner.
If prompted, he will also share the little known tale of how the Tim Horton doughnut empire actually began in a little plaza in Scarborough, Ont. not far from where Wilson grew up. firstname.lastname@example.org twitter/@hockeyscanner
Mike Wilson and Debra Thuet have sold a large portion of their Toronto Maple Leafs collection to the Canadian Museum of History. Standing beside Tim Horton’s jersey and the Maple Leaf Gardens locker-room door, the couple were at the museum in Gatineau on Friday.
King Clancy’s Stanley Cup puck (1931-1932).