JENNIFER ROBERTS/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL
The former CFLer and pro hockey tough guy, 76, remembers growing up poor, his mum's resilience and dropping the gloves with John Brophy
I haven't taken a swing at anybody in about four years.
Without sports, I'd have been dead a long time ago. That was my mission – to play professional sports. I didn't want to have a real job.
When I finished high school I took drafting and I actually went to work for Dominion Bridge. It was out in Calgary. Big company, they're no longer around. I remember sitting in the office and a buddy of mine called me and he says, 'Bobby, there's a training camp that starts next week for a junior hockey team in Moose Jaw and they're looking for players. Do you wanna go?' I said 'yeah, when are we leaving?'"
I've always taken the attitude not to take any [crap] from anybody. I think a lot of it came from my mum. One of my fondest memories of my mum comes when I was about four or five and I got into some sort of a scrap with the kid next door. The kid's mother came out of the house and gave me a smack and I went home and told me mom. She took me by the hand and marched me back over and confronts the woman. 'Did you hit my wee Bob?' she asked her. And this woman, all she got out of her mouth was, 'Yes, but…' when my mother grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the yard and kicked the hell out of her. Today, you'd end up in jail.
My mother always ran restaurants. And she also went bankrupt about three times, which was a big, big lesson for me. I always remembered that. I knew what it was like to have no money. I remember one she opened when we moved to Toronto at Parliament near Queen. Just a greasy spoon. I would work there in the summer, mostly peeling potatoes.
We lived just outside of Listowel in a little town called Ethel. Me and my younger brother, Barry, and my parents wound up living with a farmer who bred foxes for the fur.
After we came to Toronto in the winter months they used to flood the track that went around Varsity Stadium. And I can remember being out there skating and I'd see these guys out there skating around the oval with their arms behind their back. They were speed skaters and I'd try like mad to keep up with them. Eventually this guy spots me and asks if I want to join the club. It was called the Viaduct Speed Skating Club. The next year I ended up going down to Saranac Lake for the North American speed skating championship where I won three medals in my age group – two seconds and a third.
We lived in Calgary when I was 16. You name it and we probably did it. I used to hustle money down in the pool hall. My last year in high school, I never went to school. School was the pool hall.
I fought John Brophy. All of a sudden he's right in front of me and he's holding his stick like a spear and waving it in my face and catches me right here above the lip. I unloaded a chop to Brophy's head with my stick, a two-hander, cutting him for about 30 stitches. And then we just started pounding on each other. I read somewhere that Brophy said it was the only fight he had where he feared for his life. The funny thing was, neither one of us was ever suspended.
I remember another time, our team was on the road somewhere in New York State after a game and we stopped at some roadhouse to grab a bite to eat and some beer to take on the bus. I'm always wound up after a game and in the joint I notice some guy looking at me. The next thing I know I'm like yapping at this guy, asking what are you looking at? Anyway, the coach yells for us to get on the bus and we're all sitting there in the parking lot when I spot this guy I was yelling at. He's walking up and down the outside of the bus waving a gun and trying to spot me through the windows. We all start yelling at the bus driver, let's get out of here.
I'm out in Alberta one year playing hockey and I get a call from some coach who says they're looking for some players up in Grate Slave Lake. I agree to go along with this other young kid and we drive to the airport in Edmonton. I look at the plane we're to get on and it's this small little thing. I'm shy on small planes, right. If I'm going to go down I'm going to go down with about 150 other people. So I said to the kid, screw it, I'm not going. Next year I run into the kid. And he only has one ear. He tells me he got into a fight and the guy bit it off while playing up in Great Slave Lake. I guess I might the right choice.
The Domed Stadium was one of the first sports bars in Toronto. And we had The Clubhouse, a restaurant and nightclub. We had the hottest joint in Toronto for about two years. Long John Baldry played there, Sam & Dave. Ronnie Hawkins was our house band for a little bit. He used to drink Courvoisier with Heineken chasers. I tell you what, when he would fire up that band of his the hair on the back of your neck would stand up.
Sometimes I wonder how my wife's put up with me. I guess opposites do attract. She's been great and good for me. I guess I'm not an idiot all the time."
– As told to Robert MacLeod