Many fans of any sports team know at least one person who says they’re a team’s biggest fan. I recently had the privilege of chatting with Mike Wilson who has been named the ultimate leafs fan by ESPN. Mike has a memorabilia collection of more than 2000 artifacts and it’s the biggest collection of it’s kind in the world.
During this interview I’ll be referring to myself as JR and Mike Wilson as MW, so without further ado.
JR: Mike, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.
MW: No problem Jeremy, it’s my pleasure.
JR: What’s your earliest hockey memory?
MW: I started skating at the age of three at the outdoor rink at Monarch Park. I remember very early the games on TV with my dad watching but they came on at 9pm in those days so I’d be asleep after 10 – 15 minutes.
It wasn’t until I was old enough to play that it really took hold.
My dad came down the basement one Saturday morning with a bag full of equipment and before I knew it was sitting in a dressing room, outdoor rink in Scarborough (MacGregor Park). Noticed all the kids in the room had the same dumb look on their faces (where the hell are we?) all wearing the same sweater.
At one point during the game the puck ended up on my stick and I banged it towards the net. It was a cold day and the nets frozen so that sound of the clang (more like a ting) when it hit the back of the goal startled me. At that exact moment I caught eyes with my dad standing behind the net who at first hesitated but then raised his arms.
It was a Norman Rockwell moment, except I was 25 feet offside and supposed to be playing defense.
On the way home my dad asked if I liked the game and did I want to continue? I couldn’t answer fast enough and my obsession began that day.
Every waking moment it was hockey, in the basement, street, on the ice at the local schoolyard, my own games, anywhere I could play with my friends or by myself. Saturdays I couldn’t leave the house until 8am and Id be at the outdoor rink at the local school with the wind howling playing by myself for a few hours until the other kids showed up played all day.
During the week, one of the fathers flooding the ice would have to send me home and usually my dad was yelling for me to come home (it’d be around 830).
JR: Do you remember the first hockey game you attended?
MW: First game at Maple Leaf Gardens was in 1961 (born 54) against the Chicago Blackhawks. My parents didn’t tell me until game day I was going because I wouldn’t have slept the night before. They were correct.
JR: What do you remember most about that game ?
MW: I remember the crowd going into the rink; standing under the clock at the main entrance and my dad handing me a book and pen, then asking what’s this for? Autographs. Huh?
The players walked through the lobby in those days (the Leafs back entrance off Wood St) and Ken Wharram was my first autograph (if only my dad knew what he was creating that day).
I remember the sounds of the program sellers; the smell of popcorn; how dark the seating was and brightly lit the ice was; The noise of the crowd seemed so loud; how surreal it seemed looking at the players who looked so small from the upper greens.
When the game started it felt strange because no one was describing the play, so it didn’t seem real; watching the game from the start for the first time and none of my friends would see what I was seeing and would then give them a play by play the next morning before our street game; the old Export clock that lit up to signify the last minute of play; how fast it all went.
JR: Who was your favorite player growing up?
MW: Dave Keon, because he was a small skilled guy, a great skater, great with puck and showed up when it counted.
JR: When did the collection of memorabilia start?
MW: I became obsessed with the game, then the Leafs; cards, newspaper clippings, coins, cereal cut outs, the york peanut butter glasses, anything with a Maple Leaf crest I had to have, my dad’s cousin was Carl Brewer’s best friend and he gave me a game used stick signed by the team, my pride and joy. Second was the Frank Mahovlich Libby’s beans poster. Frank’s dad was the skate sharpener at the rink (Leaside) my dad played every Sunday morning. In 1963, I gave Frank’s Dad that poster. He hung the poster in his booth and it stayed there until the day he retired. Frank told me they have family photos with that poster in the background and a few weeks ago, Vintage Toronto posted a picture of Mr. Mahovlich sharpening skates back in the day and there was the poster. Pretty Cool! A few years ago, Frank visited the room and I shared that I had an original poster and the ad used to promote the poster and he was welling up listening to my story.
JR: What’s your most prized piece in the collection?
MW: I love every piece, because every piece has a story. If it doesn’t? Then it doesn’t interest me. The dressing Room door along with the 62 Stanley Cup banner that hung at the Gardens (thought to be destroyed) and the only 1 of the 11 to exist, is pretty special.
JR: How was the journey to see all 82 Maple Leafs games last season?
MW: It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever accomplished. Fans sharing their stories with such passion; they laughed, cried, screamed, did all of the above but I discovered first hand the dna of this team runs deep amongst the fan base.
It has nothing to do with the Championships or lack of for the past 50+ years, its what this team mean to families growing up from the 30’s during the depression, listening to Foster Hewitt as the only form of entertainment they could afford to do as a family. The wartime broadcasts, fathers, grandfathers passing the stories along to their children like my dad to me. Because there was only two teams in Canada, anyone west of Ontario only received Leaf games (Split down east with Habs) therefore the team has a unique connection across the nation like no other professional team in North America.
JR: What is the most memorable game you’ve ever attended?
MW: There are two games.
1. Taking my dad to the last game at the Gardens; it obviously started here for us both and then the following week to the first game at ACC reversing the trend he started with me. That is so special to me.
1a. Taking my two kids to their first games.
JR: When did you get the idea of doing a book?
MW: It was suggested by the Toronto Sun who I wrote a weekly column on my travels throughout the league. Spoke to ECW Press and they loved the idea; most of summer spent working on it even though I have a good base to start. Also one of the best hockey journalists in the business Lance Hornby from Postmedia is working with me, so in great hands.
JR: How is the book coming along?
MW: Great (well I think so anyway ha); reliving all the wonderful stories shared with me from Leafs Nation is very emotional at times; I feel so honoured fans opened up to me and want to make sure their memories are shared. Hopefully additional fans will share their cherished memories after reading the book or it’ll inspire others to do what I did. I will gladly encourage anyone and lend a hand anyway I can because we documented all the costs from travel to beer, hotdogs, tickets etc.
JR: What do you think of the changes the Leafs made this summer?
MW: I like what they did, thought Kadri was a strong trading chip because he’s a second line center playing third line minutes and the time was right. Brown was making too much and only scored seven goals.
Barrie and Kerfoot are strong additions and the eight guys on very friendly contracts, if two work out, bonus. Also keeps Marlies strong and provides competition for the guys who don’t make the roster.
Goaltending in backup position was very weak last year and cost the team second place, although they did have a chance to clinch at home in game six so its now irrelevant. But two solid backups challenging for a spot will be a boost for the club.
Its year four for the kids who are no longer kids so looking for 34, 16, 88 to take games to another level. Barrie and Reilly should be lethal on backend, 91 is 91 never taking a shift off.
I’d say one of my biggest surprises last year was watching Tavares for 89 games and how hard he works every night; the pounding he takes game in and out yet keeps delivering.
Need one of the young D-corp to get some time this year and maybe Jeremy Bracco gets some minutes but with a team expected to a real contender, it’ll be tough to share ice time.
It is essential however to have someone surprise out of camp or throughout the year because as we saw with St. Louis, you need four lines and 6 D to win.
Always exciting time but I love the winning culture developing around MLSE the last few years with TFC, the Argos, Marlies, Raptors of course and the Growlers, just like losing is contagious, so is winning.
Once again I’d like to thank Mike for taking time away from working on his book and doing this interview. Most of his collection is now at the Museum of History in Ottawa where hopefully one day it is displayed permanently.
If anyone would like to learn more about Mike Wilson and his collection, you can visit his website http://www.ultimateleafsfan.com/
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