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Former Flames part-owner Hotchkiss loses cancer battle Add to ...

It was a glorious moment for Canadian hockey when National Hockey League governors, meeting in New York on Tuesday, approved the return of the league to Winnipeg after 15 years of painful absence.

As he travelled home to Alberta that night, one of the governors, Murray Edwards, couldn't help thinking of Harley Hotchkiss, whose quiet determination made it all possible and who lay close to death at home in Calgary.

It was Mr. Hotchkiss, the former NHL chairman and Calgary Flames co-owner, who had tirelessly fought for the survival of Canadian NHL teams, and maintained dialogue with the players' union during the dark days of a lockout that wiped out the 2004-2005 season.

Hotchkiss was a key architect of the new NHL economics that made it possible for the league to return to Winnipeg and ensured the survival of all six (now seven) Canadian teams.

"Harley was the consensus builder, the voice of reason in the whole process, and that's an untold story," Edwards said on the night of the New York vote. "He provided sober second thought. If we hadn't had that, Winnipeg would not be coming back in and we would have lost other Canadian teams."

The next morning, Hotchkiss died at 83 after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Yet to focus on his huge hockey contributions is too narrow a prism. This product of a Southwestern Ontario dairy-tobacco farm was a groundbreaking oilman and investor, and a philanthropist whose achievements include a cutting-edge brain research institute at the University of Calgary.

He came to epitomize the best of Calgary's vaunted volunteerism, the ethic that says the price of doing well, of prospering beyond your childhood dreams, is pitching in to help others.

"There is a lot to be celebrated and a lot to be learned by the way he gave back to life," said Edwards, who like his friend was a boy of ordinary means who became very wealthy in Calgary.

In a place where people boast about their charity, Hotchkiss did it quietly, tenaciously, and with an easy charm. He hunted and fished with hockey heroes and plutocrats, but at heart he was the Ontario farm boy who grew up idolizing Syl Apps and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Oil was his business, but it was farm life around Straffordville, near Tillsonburg, that moulded his work ethic. He grew up on a farm that raised Ayrshire cattle and later shifted into tobacco.

"We started growing tobacco when I was nine years old, and I've picked millions of tobacco leaves," Hotchkiss said.

He was also a splendid hockey and baseball player, who was on the field one night in 1945, playing for Straffordville against nearby Langton. He realized he was not as interested in the game as the opportunity to sidle over to a 15-year-old Langton girl named Rebecca (Becky) Boyd. "I don't remember how I played," he would say, "but I hit a home run that day." It was the beginning of a 65-year romance.

He went off to Michigan State University where he studied to be a mining geologist. The idea was to hang around another two years and get his masters, but money was tight and he and Becky were engaged. He saw no harm in sending out a couple of job applications.

"I picked Shell Oil because they were the only company with a garage in Straffordville, and Canadian Superior Oil because it sounded kind of romantic. And I'll be darned if I didn't get a wire from the chief geologist of Canadian Superior."

In fact, the president journeyed down to Michigan from Calgary to woo young Harley. They asked for a decision in a week - it took him a day to tell them he was coming.

Hotchkiss came to Calgary at the best possible time - in the aftermath of the massive Leduc oil strike, when all things were possible - although, he admitted later, "I didn't know that at the time."

He started in geology, but the funding of the oil patch began to fascinate him. In 1953, he left Canadian Superior to join the energy finance side of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Calgary.

In 1957, a Texas oilman named T. Boone Pickens travelled north to examine the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, and ran into Hotchkiss at CIBC.

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