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(Banana) Joe Lamantia sports a top hat and walking stick to show people how to dress at Maple Leaf Gardens.
(Banana) Joe Lamantia sports a top hat and walking stick to show people how to dress at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Two Leafs insiders were witness to the halcyon days of hockey Add to ...

They were Maple Leaf Gardens' fixtures - Al Stewart, a public-relations guru and assistant to three different Maple Leafs' owners, and Banana Joe Lamantia, a goal judge, penalty timekeeper and official timekeeper at pro, senior and junior games when he wasn't a receiver of goods.

By coincidence, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Lamantia began working at the Gardens in 1948. Though they worked in different parts of the building, their paths crossed each day they worked in what were the halcyon days of hockey.

They died within two days of each other - Mr. Lamantia 82, on July 20 and Mr. Stewart, 73, on July 22 - at the same hospital, Toronto East General.

Mr. Stewart - who was born Nov. 22, 1935, in Toronto - loved the game and the Maple Leafs so much that he weaselled his way into a job selling programs at Leafs' games when he was 13. That was his foot in the door to a career that catapulted him into pioneering film production and broadcasting.

"Selling programs was his way of seeing the games for free, plus he got some pocket money," said his daughter Nancy.

A short time later, he was writing stories for the programs. At 17, Mr. Stewart had earned the trust of Leafs owner Conn Smythe and he was hired as his junior assistant and gopher boy. Whatever chores the boss asked him to do, he did. And what he did for Mr. Smythe only led to better things. In 1956, he graduated to a media-relations role, which meant travelling on occasion with the Leafs by train in the old, six-team NHL. He would work along the way as an understudy to PR honchos Ed Fitkin, Spiff Evans and Stan Obodiac.

Away from the rink, he studied at Osgoode Hall for a lawyer's degree, only to fall one credit short. He didn't bother to pick up that last credit and he was close to a degree in commerce and finance at the University of Toronto but didn't graduate. A serious bout with pneumonia derailed his education plans, but his heart was really with the Leafs anyway. In 1961, he was hired full-time in PR with the Leafs and their Marlboros' junior affiliate.

"I was involved in public relations for the Montreal Canadiens when Al was doing the same job for the Leafs and we'd talk a lot on the phone," Frank Selke Jr. said. "Even though there was an intense rivalry on the ice in those days between the Leafs and the Canadiens, Al and I got along very good. We'd help each out with information."

For a few years, Mr. Stewart was also executive assistant to Leafs' majority owner Harold Ballard when Mr. Ballard assumed control of the Leafs and the Gardens from Mr. Smythe.

"As tough as it might have been to work for Harold, Al had all the answers. He was always on top of everything," said Jim Gregory, a former Leafs general manager. "He wasn't always serious either. He always liked to play jokes on people, including me."

For 20 years, Mr. Stewart remained at the Gardens before he was tipped off that Mr. Ballard and Leafs president Stafford Smythe, Conn's son, were being investigated by police for fraud and theft. It was Mr. Stewart's signal to move on. Mr. Ballard was convicted and spent time in prison and Mr. Smythe died at the age of 50 before his case went to trial.

"Dad got out before the paddy wagon arrived," joked his son Bryan. "He saw trouble on the horizon and he didn't want to be part of it."

Near the end of his days at the Gardens, Mr. Stewart had begun dabbling in film production and that's what he pursued full-time after leaving the Leafs' employ. Many of his creative features, instructional films and coaching videos were done for the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the CBC and Hockey Night in Canada . He wrote, produced and directed much of his work, not bad for someone untrained in this profession.

"He was self-taught," his daughter Nancy said.

One of Mr. Stewart's bigger projects was a feature on Tom Pashby, a hockey-safety advocate. He also was widely hailed for his CAHA-inspired video documenting how the Russians trained back in the 1970s. Part of that video featured special moments he chronicled from the 1972 and 1974 series between Canada and the Soviets. That film - Hockey Versus Xokken - earned him a Canadian Film and Television Award for Best Sports Film in 1975 and recognition from the International Film and TV Festival in New York.

"It was one of the best hockey films ever made," Mr. Selke said.

One of Mr. Stewart's proudest moments came when Don Cherry was hired by him and HNIC executive producer Ralph Mellanby to be an intermission analyst in 1980 shortly after Mr. Cherry was fired as coach of the NHL's Colorado Rockies. The first segment was shot in the downstairs recreation room at Mr. Stewart's home and the show has been a fixture ever since. As Mr. Mellanby and Mr. Selke will tell you, it was Mr. Stewart who coined the phrase Coach's Corner as the name for Mr. Cherry's spot. That name, too, has survived close to 30 years.

Mr. Stewart also suggested years ago that TSN should introduce a segment at many of the sporting events they covered to be called The Turning Point. That segment still exists today on hockey, baseball, football and other broadcasts.

Mr. Lamantia, meanwhile, began his stint at the Gardens as a goal judge and penalty timekeeper, but later became the official timekeeper and added a full-time job as a Gardens' receiver.

He was born Jan. 3, 1927, in Toronto. His father, Dominic, and his family operated a fruit business in downtown Toronto and provided oranges to players from visiting teams. Over time, he acquired the moniker Banana Joe.

It was said that Mr. Lamantia provided bananas and other fruits for the 1967 Progressive Conservative leadership convention at the Gardens. Party leader Robert Stanfield was photographed having trouble munching on a banana, just like he had trouble handling that football in another memorable faux pax. Somehow, Banana Joe stuck after that.

Mr. Lamantia also obtained reputation for honesty. In fact, Conn Smythe took a liking to Mr. Lamantia as he had to Mr. Stewart.

"Conn Smythe went up to Joe one time and said, 'There are two honest people here, you and me,'" Joe's brother Lawrence said.

Banana Joe's role in the penalty box was exciting and demanding during his 53-year tenure doing Marlies' junior/senior games and Leafs' matches. When play stopped, he would have to stop the clock and when the referee dropped the puck, he had to start it again. It may sound simple, but he had to be watching all the time.

"He was right on top of everything," his brother Lawrence said. "He would say that he never got to watch the games because he was so busy at the job."

Mr. Lamantia also got to chat up his favourite Leafs or attempt to cool down Leafs' players and opposing players, who were sent to the penalty box with double minors or fighting majors. It meant patience was the norm with all the harangue going on between the opposing players in the box.

"Players would yell and talk and there were no doors between the players. There was just Joe between the players," said Dave Keon Jr., who worked under Mr. Lamantia for years and was one of his best friends. Mr. Keon first met Mr. Lamantia in 1960 when his father and Leafs' great Dave Sr. brought him to the Gardens as a baby. Keon Jr. is currently crew supervisor of off-ice officials in Toronto and senior manager of public relations for the NHL.

Mr. Lamantia was known as a bit of a clown who loved to joke around and even took a fancy to dressing up in his role on occasion. Conn Smythe had made the remark one time that he wasn't happy with the way people dressed to go to Leafs' games. Mr. Lamantia heard about his boss's remark and promptly went to Malabar's costume shop, rented a tuxedo, high-top hat and matching walking cane. That was his attire for the next game.

One other night, an errant puck struck Mr. Lamantia on the head and he needed to get bandaged up. But he declined to go to hospital for stitches until the game ended. Of course, there was no way that setback would keep him away from the Gardens.

"Next game, he shows up in a silver construction helmet," Keon Jr. said.

While the tuxedo outfit was considered classy attire, the construction helmet was deemed inappropriate and he was admonished for it. Ah, the memories of a distinguished career of a man in the penalty box, a tenure that lasted until 2001 at the Air Canada Centre.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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