Hornby's Leaf History Blog: Bryan Lewis and Peter Conacher find fame

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Bryan Lewis would look around Maple Leaf Gardens during O Canada and know 16,000 excited fans and national TV audience could suddenly turn their wrath on him in an instant.

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“Standing at centre for the anthem, in a place like that, the proverbial home of Hockey Night In Canada, you’d be nervous and shaking so badly,” Lewis recalled. “But if you (succumbed to the pressure of the big stage) you wouldn’t last long as an official.”

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Lewis did stay; to experience more than 1,000 games as an NHL referee, many of those on Carlton St., where he saw the best and worst of the Leafs and was once subpoenaed in Provincial Court as a witness in a Tiger Williams’ assault case.

He also worked New York’s Madison Square Garden where the Rangers still play, long-gone expansion rinks in Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City and Bloomington and survived some harrowing trips to minor league barns in remote corners of the U.S.

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His off-ice service continued for decades as a zebra scout, NHL director of officiating after the sudden death of John McCauley and a founder of the two-referee system and video replay, both indispensable elements today.

On Thursday, a couple of blocks from the Gardens at the Carlu, Lewis will be recognized for a lifetime of keeping order on the ice with  induction to the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.

Three members of the Leafs family are in the Hall’s class of 2023, club president Brendan Shanahan, one-time player Pete Conacher, who is going in with the 1959 world champion Belleville McFarlands, and broadcaster Joe Bowen. Other honoured athletes include national women’s hockey star Jayna Hefford, curler Marilyn Bodogh and the late lacrosse legend Gaylord Powless.

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Lewis is also friends with Steve Ludzik, who is getting the Sandy Hawley Community Service Award for helping raise awareness of Parkinson’s Disease which has afflicted the former player and coach.

“You don’t realize the magnitude of this until I asked the Hall ‘am I really the first official to get in?’,” the 81-year-old Lewis said. “That’s very unique. Red Storey is in the Hall, but as an athlete (football). It’s almost disbelief, to be on the same list as these famous people.

“I do know I put Shanny in the box a couple of times. And he never said ‘thank you’.”

A ref can’t ever have a home game, so Toronto was as close as it came for Lewis, an Alliston-born, long-time resident of Georgetown where many NHL stripes settled for its proximity to Pearson Airport and their head office. His first Gardens assignment was in the late ‘60s.

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“I was so pumped, thinking I’m be going into a big-league officials’ room with big lounge seats. But there were just three wooden chairs and maybe a bench. I think at one time it probably served as a linen closet.

“It was behind the penalty boxes and there was just a sign on the wall that read ‘if you or a player need medical attention, call this number’.

“But a game in there was fantastic and of course they were all on TV. The tech people would come in before and ask us how we were going to line up at centre before the game, right or left of the dot (for introductions).

“That was a way to give a secret wave to our families at home. I’d run my hand across my NHL crest for my wife and kids to let them know ‘Dad’s okay’. You just wanted to be at the dot, the best place to hear the dulcit tones of (p.a. man) Paul Morris.”

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Lewis got to know the full array of Gardens characters, Harold Ballard, Morris, timekeeper ‘Banana’ Joe Lamantia and Doug Moore, who so carefully groomed the ice.

“Dougie had come up with Jet Ice (mineral free water that froze faster) and he’d be standing proudly every night by the Zamboni entrance watching us warm up. I’d go by and kid him, saying ‘Jet Ice?, it’s more like DC-3 Ice’. There was lots of back and forth jokes.”

The Slap Shot era in the early 1970s, gave Lewis a book’s worth of Gardens stories.

“In the days of bench-clearing brawls, one game stands out against Chicago. We ushered a Blackhawk player off the ice through the Zamboni door, but he came back out again. He was in serious trouble and suspended.”

The Philadelphia Flyers and Leafs had some nasty exchanges, namely in the ‘76 playoffs, but any meeting was bound to have Williams and Dave (The Hammer) Schultz at odds – and usually incarcerated. Lewis recalls them chirping from their respective boxes over him and Lamantia.

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“Tiger would say, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘look at that Schultz, a total IQ of 10’. My comeback was  ‘you join him and it doesn’t go up very much’.”

In October of ’76, Williams cut Dennis Owchar of the Penguins in a stick swinging duel for nearly 50 stitches. Lewis received a summons to appear in court in the matter of ‘The Queen vs. David Williams’, to give material evidence for the defence. Williams was acquitted.

“They were cracking down on violence (through Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry),” Lewis said. “I tell Tiger now and then, such as an Easter Seals event last year, ‘you son-of-a-gun, you’d never buy me a beer, but I kept you out of jail.”

Lewis kept the subpoena, one of his more unusual souvenirs, but his home office is filled with much more pleasant Gardens’ memoirs, such as a picture of Lewis and His Eminence Cardinal Carter helping Ballard with the 1979-80 ceremonial opening faceoff.

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“The 48th Highlanders were there as they always are. To have an opening game in Toronto was significant.”

Yet Lewis strongly disputed the prevailing suspicion among many that officials favoured the Leafs at home because the Toronto HQ was there or the flip side, that they called far more penalties against the blue and white to show they were unbiased.

“Never.” Lewis insisted. “When I was the boss, before starting an assignment set, I looked to see how many times an official had seen any team, home and away, to avoid over-exposure.

“I used to hear the same talk in Montreal and New York where the NHL had offices.”

Lewis would try and give officials across the board at least a game a week in or near their hometowns to be with family a few days.

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Lewis’s first game was at the Montreal Forum, as was his first playoff action and where then-officiating director Scotty Morrison thought it most appropriate he work No. 1,000 in January of 1986. Lewis’s family was flown in, wife Elaine, children Janelle, Duane and Alyson.

“I’d never taken my Dad (Erwin Howard) to a game before that, for fear he’d hear someone in the crowd call me a bum and he’d come out swinging.”

The milestone night was delayed a month as Bryan recovered from a broken wrist, one of many job hazards when officials weren’t well padded and didn’t have to wear helmets.

At that time the only refs to reach 1,000 were Bruce Hood and Ron Wicks.

Not long after that, Morrison offered Lewis a place under referee-in-chief McCauley. Lewis felt his whistle still had a few good years in it, but took the promotion.

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“It ended up being the absolute right thing to do. At first, I was in arenas I didn’t know existed. If someone told me there was a good official working in Coboconk, Ont., I was there. I wanted the comfort level of saying ‘I saw that guy ref myself’.

“But the withdrawal symptoms were terrible for me. I’d be watching a game thinking ‘if one of those guys gets hurt I can get my skates and go out there.

“After while, I didn’t miss the banging and the injuries. And it was a fun to be mentored by John, a guy I grew up with. We’d done many minor tournaments together, often traveled to the office together and probably communicated every day.”

Pat Quinn letter
A letter from Pat Quinn. SUPPLIED/Bryan Lewis

McCauley’s sudden passing from emergency gall bladder surgery in June of 1989 devasted Lewis and the tight officiating community, leaving him to fill huge shoes. He did get plenty of encouragement, such as an unexpected  message of good luck from Vancouver general manager Pat Quinn, one of the league’s most vocal ref baiters.

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Video replay, with its nascent technology and the new video goal judge position was implemented two years later, after its success in the NFL.

“The very first game we used it was in New York with a 7:30 start and at 7:20, I wasn’t sure it was gonna work,” Lewis laughed. “You talk about a cold sweat. I was way up in a tiny corner room at Madison Square Garden thinking ‘okay, let’s do  it’.

At that time it was only used to confirm if the puck had crossed the goal line and if it was kicked in, thrown, went in off an official, crossed the goal line before the net was dislodged or before the end of a period. Some officials resented the human element being taken out of their control.

“Today, it’s much more detailed, but the sell to the guys at that time was easy – ‘isn’t it great to know at the end of the night the right call has been made’?

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“There was a Detroit – Minnesota game early on, a 1-0 win by Detroit on a disputed goal, which was resolved by replay. In the Rangers – Canucks playoff (1994) we had one team score a goal that was missed, the other team came down and scored. It was our nightmare scenario, but it was nice to back up the tape (see the first goal) and reset the clock.”

Not so cut and dried in the 1999 final when Dallas winger Brett Hull scored the triple overtime winner against Buffalo with his foot in the crease. At first it seemed clear grounds to be disallowed, based on other reviews that season. Past midnight, Lewis had to face the Sabres, an army of reporters, not to mention many conspiracy theorists, but didn’t waver on judging the play legit.

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“Hull was the puck carrier entitled to a rebound off the goalie. It was not a change of possession, it’s his puck. I walked everyone there through it, got the rule book out and never left the arena until the league was satisfied I could talk to the media and then go home.

“We found an instance where the same thing happened earlier in the season. I went in and talked to the coaches from Buffalo. Of course (their anger) was what you’d expect. But I walked them through it, too.

“It was just the timing. Had it happened in Game 2 of the season it’s not the same, but the Cup final carried the greatest magnitude. I wrote a memo to all NHL employees on my decision so that the guy at the desk in Toronto, New York or Montreal had no doubts.”

Lewis considers the implementation of the two-ref system in 1998 his greatest legacy.

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“We drew it up at our training camp at the Nottawasaga Inn. I’m so proud the whole thing was put together by NHL officials (not outside consultants). We tightened it up through a few drafts; who’s dropping the puck, where will the other ref stand, who does what – anything and everything you could think of.

“I don’t think people understand how hard it was, yet it was so thorough that I don’t know if you need to change any of it today.”

Leaving the league entirely a few years later presented another difficult transition.

“I always knew I’d miss the people more than anything else. I happened to walk down press row in Glendale at a Coyotes game a couple of years ago and saw guys I’d known for years and years. Our stories get better over a cold beer.”

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“At (former ref) Ron Ego’s funeral, a bunch of us were talking how amazing it was and what we did to make itb through games in Houston, Dallas or Fort Worth. The scary part now is that when went on strike in (‘93) that out of 20 of us then, half are now gone.”

Lewis found new and rewarding pursuits, 22 years as a Municipal Councillor in Halton Hills, where he championed causes such as parks and recreation and also ran for Mayor.

He’s still active at the rink as supervisor of officials for Ontario University Athletics men’s hockey. As we spoke, he was getting over a touch of pneumonia from spending so much time in cold storage.

“The OUA is a brand of hockey I absolutely enjoy. It takes two hours to play and you’re out of there.”

It’s a relaxed pace, stress-free pace, allowing him some volunteer community service work, such as helping challenged youth and adults.

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“My wristwatch drove my life  for 55 years. My wife and I sat down for coffee a while ago and she reminded me for 33 (NHL) years I was constantly looking at the time, saying I have to go here, go there, be in New York for meetings, then Chicago and L.A., or be in the hotel lobby to get to this or that game’.

“You combine that with 22 years of politics, again with a lot of meetings which meant I can’t go to my kids’ events or my wife’s because of a ribbon cutting or something.

“So now I ask you ‘want a buy a used watch’?”

ONCE A LEAF

Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.

Left winger Pete Conacher

Born: July 29, 1932, in Toronto.

Number: 16

Seasons: 1957-58

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Games played: 5, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point, 5 PIMS

THEN

Imagine the hoopla if a son of Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Mats Sundin or anyone else on the Leafs’ list of top scorers were to follow his father to the team.

Pete Conacher, sire of Charlie ‘The Big Bomber’, preferred for his brief Leaf tenure to be low key. Charlie was the first franchise star of the re-named Leafs in the 1930s, helping put the team and the new Gardens on the map.

Pete, who made his name with Chicago and the Rangers in the early ‘50s, had been stuck in the minors in Buffalo a few years when the chance to play in his hometown came up.

“Billy Reay had coached (AHL rival) Rochester and when the Leafs made him their coach (in 1957) he must have said they should draft me,” said Conacher.

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“To be there at the Gardens was the ultimate. My Dad was a star player, but being the son of Charlie, was never really thrown at me. I never had management, players or anyone else bring that up as a positive or a negative.

“It was just too bad I got hurt before training camp (a leg injury) and when I came back I was more than a step behind. Billy said he wanted me to go down to Rochester awhile, but I wanted Buffalo to play with my friend, Kenny Wharram (soon to break out with the Blackhawks and win the 1961 Stanley Cup with them).

“Then Billy got fired (replaced by Punch Imlach) and the Belleville McFarlands hired him as an advisor. I’d quit playing and gone home to work for Seagram’s (Distillery), but Billy must have gone to Belleville and urged them to put me on their team that was going to the world championships.”

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NOW

On Thursday at the Carlu in Toronto, Conacher and the surviving McFarlands will be inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. The ‘Macs’ were the last Ontario senior team to represent Canada and win the worlds. The ’59 tournament was in Prague and other cities in what was then Czechoslovakia.

“The highlight of my career,” Conacher said. “Even after all these years it’s a nice feeling. I’m glad the Hall is doing that for our team.”

The ’59 tournament format final was a six-nation round robin, in which Canada won its first four games, including 3-1 over the Russians, building up a goal differential of 14 by the time they faced the host nation on the last day. While Canada would’ve preferred a sweep, the 5-3 loss to the host nation had no effect on winning gold.

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“The last game was kind of anti-climactic,” Conacher agreed. “When we lined up after for the congratulatory handshakes, a picture and all that, it took a little bit away to have lost the last game.

“But we got medals and the Czech people gave us crystal vases. I still have mine, a beautiful piece. They were very good to us and you knew the Russians and Czechs didn’t get along, so the Czech fans were definitely pulling for us against the them a (3-1 win).”

Conacher said a couple of weeks in the East Bloc was not exactly a holiday.

“We were behind the Iron Curtain and that whole (police state) was in effect. That made life quite difficult. I’m sure we were spied on. Going in and out of the hotel was a little uneasy. I didn’t stray far from it.”

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The 91-year-old Conacher laments the Macs have depleted ranks as time takes a toll.

“Only four guys are scheduled to be there next week, almost all the rest are gone. Minnie Minard is in Fort Wayne and can’t travel, but Red Berenson is coming up from Michigan to accept the award on behalf of us all. Donald Barclay and Davey Jones live in Belleville and there’s me. But six are coming from John McLellan’s family and six from Marv Edwards’ as well as the Mayor of Belleville (Neil Ellis).”

Their team was named after the road construction firm owned by Harvey McFarland, who made the trip to Czechoslovakia. The Macs had won the Allan Cup senior Canadian title from the Kelowna Packers for the right to represent the nation, but as was the custom, bulked up with extras such as Conacher, Berenson, Al Dewsbury and a couple of defencemen to face strong national teams across the pond.

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“They were leaving on a Sunday to fly to Europe, I was working up to Friday and didn’t know until Saturday if they would let me go,” Conacher laughed. “I was more a last second addition than a last minute. We flew from Trenton on an Armed Forces plane and the team came home by boat.

“Unfortunately for every guy they added, they had to sit someone who’d played all year and won the Allan Cup. They parachuted about seven of us in and at first it was a little uncomfortable for me. But a player like Keith MacDonald couldn’t have been more supportive. He still flew over and was the best fan we had. That was a good feeling that he and others could accept what happened and I’ll never forget that (sacrifice).”

Conacher scored three times early in a 7-2 win over the hosts to cement his standing.

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LOOSE LEAFS

Another member of that ’59 Macs was Floyd Crawford, father of Marc, who started on his Stanley Cup coaching path with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, and brother Lou, who had the same job years later … Joe Bowen is also heading into the OSHF. Before his 40-odd years with the Leafs, Bowen called men’s basketball at the University of Windsor and junior games for the OHL Sudbury Wolves.

THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY

Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of Dale McCourt signing as a free agent with the Leafs. He began a trend of former first overall picks by other teams who found their way to Toronto; John Tavares, Sundin, Eric Lindros, Joe Thornton, Bryan Berard, Owen Nolan and Rob Ramage … Born 110 years ago Sunday, New Brunswicker Gordie Drillon, the last Leaf winner of the Art Ross Trophy.

Have a question, comment or want to see a former Leaf profiled? Drop a line to [email protected].

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Originally posted 2023-10-19 17:37:28.


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