I had an English teacher at New Glasgow High School who used to tell me that a day without learning something is a day lost.
I’ve tried to live by her advice ever since.
Just this past week, while I was researching for a column I hope to write during the holiday season, I got quite a surprise. It was more like a shock.
First, a little background.
If you know me, you know the Toronto Maple Leafs have been the primary focus of my life-long devotion to the activity called hockey.
Wear the blue and white jersey — even if it’s only for a single game in the NHL — and you’ve caught my interest forever. There are no exceptions.
If a player was born in Nova Scotia and wore the Maple Leaf colours for one game or many seasons, he’s in my good books.
A pair of Cape Bretoners, Parker MacDonald and Al MacNeil, are notable examples. I’ve followed their careers since my school days.
Until a week or so ago, I thought I could rattle off the names of every player from this province who wore a Toronto sweater, even if he did so before I was born.
So there I was, looking through my many hockey books to make sure I had all the correct details in mind.
What a shock I got.
As I delved through the Leafs of long ago — as far back as the 1920s and ’30s — I recognized the names and accomplishments of many.
Among my Toronto memorabilia are programs from games played at Maple Leaf Gardens all the way back to 1933-34. The same with a few Leafs hockey cards from the same era.
Any Leafs fanatic worth his fan club membership would be familiar with guys such as Charlie Conacher, Ace Bailey, Harold (Baldy) Cotton, Hap Day, Joe Primeau, Bob Davidson, King Clancy, Red Horner and Flash Hollett.
I’ve been reading books and articles about such Leafs all my life. I’ve never been bored by a good story about a good Leaf.
But among those eight players I just listed, one should have stood out for a geographical reason.
It didn’t. It never did.
So, with my old English teacher in mind, I was about to learn something that day. The time had arrived for a personal confession. Perhaps I should have called it a personal embarrassment.
You see, I didn’t know about every ex-Leaf after all.
I carried that oversight wherever I went — to my beloved Maple Leaf Gardens many times, to Leafs training camps, to Stanley Cup celebrations in the club’s dressing room.
Now I purposely left the name to the last — Flash Hollett. Official records list him as William (Flash) Hollett.
Oh, I knew about him. Quite a bit, in fact. I could tell you about many aspects of his life and career.
How he was born before the start of the First World War. How he was initially a very excellent lacrosse player. How he was discovered — while playing in a lacrosse game, not a hockey game — by Leafs owner Connie Smythe. How Smythe signed him, put him with the minor league Buffalo Bisons, and recalled him to the big club at his first opportunity.
How Hollett’s recall followed the never-forgotten incident between Toronto’s Ace Bailey and Boston’s Eddie Shore in 1933. When the battle was over, Bailey had suffered a fractured skull that ended his career. Weeks later, the first NHL all-star game was organized in Bailey’s honour.
How Hollett played for Toronto over two and a half seasons before being sold to the Bruins for $16,000. How he went on to stardom for eight years in Beantown. Despite being a defenceman, how he scored 19 goals in a season, an NHL record for rearguards; how he equalled the 19-goal figure the next year; how he broke his own record with 20 markers in one of his last years.
How Hollett, when he retired after 500-plus games, had 132 goals, the most ever to that time by a defenceman. How his record stood for two and a half decades before being broken by another Boston blueliner, a kid by the name of Bobby Orr.
I mustn’t forget how Hollett helped the Bruins win two Stanley Cup titles. Even Orr didn’t break that achievement, also playing on two cup winners. Finally, how Hollett had a career that had many observers believing he should have been selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He had a good NHL career, and I certainly knew of it.
So how did I shock myself during my recent research? How did I come to write this Flash Hollett column?
Easily, I might note. You may have noticed I missed an important fact about him.
Hollett, you see, was born in Nova Scotia. More specifically in Cape Breton, more precisely in North Sydney.
And I never knew that.
Hollett had been a trailblazer for Al MacNeil, the defenceman who was a Maple Leaf in the early 1950s, before going on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, and coach the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship in 1971 and the Nova Scotia Voyageurs to three Calder Cup wins in the 1970s.
Hollett had also been an inspiration to Parker MacDonald, who was a Maple Leaf before he became a New York Ranger, a Detroit Red Wing, a Boston Bruin and a Minnesota North Star.
MacNeil, born in Sydney, is now 85 years old. MacDonald passed away in 2017 at the age of 84.
Flash Hollett, the first of the three Cape Bretoners to be Leaf alumni, died in 1999, a week after his 87th birthday.
My most important hockey lesson during these stay-at-home days of the pandemic?
Flash was a Maple Leaf, Flash was a Nova Scotian, and I won’t ever forget it.