Pieces of hockey his­tory sold to mu­seum for $2M

‘Pre­server” of game’s trea­sures hopes items go on per­ma­nent dis­play

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - WAYNE SCANLAN

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. ws­can­lan@post­media.com twit­ter/@hock­eyscan­ner

PHO­TOS: JULIE OLIVER

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).

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