Maple Leafs Time Machine: The Chin Brothers assisted Paul Henderson

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Everyone of a certain age knows the Paul Henderson legend, the Maple Leaf who saved the nation’s back bacon with three winning goals against the Soviets in 1972.

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Only a few have heard a key element of the back story — how the national hero developed his hockey skills in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Lucknow, Ont., with borrowed equipment from the Chin family.

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Or that Charles and Rose Chin had 14 children, 11 of them boys, three of whom created quite a stir in 1944 when invited to the Leafs’ training camp in Owen Sound.

First, a stick tap to Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame, who planned a book on the Chins about 25 years ago, before projects such as a Bill Barilko bio, took precedence. Shea did extensive interviews with and about the Chins, though couldn’t get enough interest from a publisher. He still kept in touch with them, learning more of their remarkable journey in Canada.

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Shea remembered the day he was researching Toronto newspaper clips for a piece on his great uncle, Jack MacLean, an obscure member of the 1945 Cup-champion Leafs.

“The story that captivated me was the three Chin brothers. Bill was 17, Albert (Ab) 16, and George just 15. George and I became very dear friends.”

The Chin’s great grandparents came to Canada through Kelowna B.C., moving east to Newmarket, Ont. Charles, Rose and their first batch of kids settled there, where the first of two diners was established, the second in Lucknow.

Though China had been invaded by Japan and was an ally of Canada in World War II, anti-Asian sentiments ran high in North America at the time. The Chinese Immigration Act either suspended almost all travel to Canada in 1923 or required all persons of that origin to register with the federal government.

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The lads made local headlines in the early ‘40s playing in a juvenile league and Lucknow’s proximity to Detroit attracted a Red Wing scout, who told the Toronto Star in August of 1944: “The Chin boys are going to surprise everyone this winter. They’ll be ready for the big time before long.”

That report alarmed Leafs’ brass, but coach Hap Day, an Owen Sounder, had already heard about them and put Ab and Bill on Toronto’s negotiation list, George being too young at the time.

There was plenty of excitement when Day invited the undersized trio to Toronto’s camp in his hometown and when they excelled against veteran competition — sparse as that was during the NHL’s wartime manpower shortage — interest only heightened.

The Chins played in all three Blue vs. White exhibition games that autumn, the teams coached by Leafs great Joe Primeau and a young exec with the junior Marlboroughs, Harold Ballard, with gate receipts from 12,105 spectators directed to the Kiwanis Club.

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“Although on the small side and several steps away from top-flight hockey, the Chinese line made a big hit with the crowd with its clever passing, good stickhandling and aggressiveness,” the Star wrote.

Another article mentioned: “Fans got a great kick out of the Chin boys and their performance. They were given lots of use and worked hard, but could not produce a goal that would have pleased the crowd.”

Though disappointed to be sent home at the end of camp, George had 12 goals in a game against Kincardine soon after, then six the next game, with Ab and Bill combining for four. The Leafs heard lots of teasing for being too hasty with their decision to cut them.

Shea went to Lucknow in pursuit of his book, hearing many stories about the Chins, whether it was a queue at the rink for a ticket to their games or after, when they rushed back to the family restaurant to work. Part of their duties were attracting customers.

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“They occupy a front table and greet their worshippers,” the Star wrote. “Often, there’s a lineup to get inside as well as to get autographs.”

The cloud of racism lingered, however.

“When we played in places like Goderich, Kincardine and Hanover, we heard the occasional taunt,” George told Shea. “It was stuff like, ‘Kill that ch***!’ We just shrugged it off and tried to score another goal to beat them.”

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Here’s where Henderson enters the saga. Born in a horse-drawn sled as it crossed Lake Huron trying to get to a hospital in Kincardine during a snowstorm, his family endured financial challenges after his father came back from military service. Paul started in hockey using old catalogues for knee pads.

The Chin’s restaurant had a huge basement larder, which often secreted a thin layer of water. It froze in winter, giving family and friends a chance to play, Henderson among them.

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“I talk to Paul all the time about that,” Shea said. “He said ‘oh yeah, Ab was my coach for many years and my first equipment came from the Chin family.’ The Chins likely came by it through hand-me-downs, too.

“There wasn’t much room down there for Paul and the kids to skate and it couldn’t have been more than a 16th of an inch of ice. But Paul talked so fondly of that and their whole family, especially Ab.”

In a Globe and Mail obituary on George this week, Henderson said: “I helped them peel potatoes. We had to do that before we could go downstairs to play ball hockey.”

A winger in the same leagues the Chins had played in, Henderson was courted by both the Boston Bruins and Red Wings, choosing the latter for the closer proximity of its junior team in Hamilton. He was full time with Detroit by 1964-65 and in ’68, part of a blockbuster deal with the Leafs along with Norm Ullman that saw Frank Mahovlich go to Detroit.

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After almost turning down the chance to play for Canada in ’72 (he and wife Eleanor had planned a long-awaited European vacation) he formed its most effective line with Bobby Clarke and Leafs teammate Ron Ellis.

But the NHL dream had already eluded the Chins.

Vernon B.C., forward Larry Kwong became the first Asian in the league late in the ’47-48 season with the Rangers.

George developed as the best of the brothers, playing for the Windsor Spitfires in their first major OHA season and became an International Hockey League champion with the Chatham Maroons. That earned him a scholarship at the University of Michigan, which he led to a title as well, an NCAA all-star with 122 points in three seasons.

A decade later, he became one of the first Canadians to play pro in England for the Nottingham Panthers, continuing his education there.

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“Not only did the restaurant thrive, but all 14 kids did, too,” Shea said. “They became professionals in their various fields as pharmacists, engineers, doctors, dentists … it was astonishing.”

Bill died in 1994, Ab in 2010 and, a month ago, George passed peacefully in Calgary at 94 years old.

Daughter Leanne e-mailed Shea: “Dad appreciated your kindness and the opportunity you gave him to talk about his hockey career. He left a legacy of four children, eight grandchildren, some who played and some who still play hockey.”

ONCE A LEAF

Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.

LW Eric Lacroix

Born: July 15, 1971 in Montreal, Que.

Years with the Leafs: 1993-94

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Games played: 5 (Three regular season, two playoffs) 0-0-0, 2 PIM

Numbers: 37, 41

THEN

The sons of general managers make up a very small demographic of Leafs.

Such as Brent Imlach, who played three games for GM/coach Punch and Eric Lacroix, whose pop Pierre had just taken the reins of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 when Eric was summoned by the Leafs for his NHL debut late in the 1993-94 regular season and playoffs.

“It was only a short period, but I loved it was an Original Six team,” said Lacroix, back in town last month for his late father’s Hall of Fame induction. “As a Canadian kid from Montreal it was so awesome to be part of a rivalry from the Toronto side.

“Playing in the old Gardens was unreal. I show my kids old pictures, tell them ‘yeah, I was a Leaf’. It’s funny because they think I looked 12-years-old. I absolutely kept the sweater, it’s still in my house.”

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Lacroix played more than 500 NHL games, including two seasons for Pierre in Colorado, with stops in New York with the Rangers and in Ottawa.

NOW

Eric made many moving speeches on behalf of his father during Hall of Fame week, recalling his own conflicting emotions as a Leaf when Pierre’s many clients as Quebec’s premier player agent, whom Eric grew up with, suddenly became rivals to his Nordiques and Avs.

“The one thing he wasn’t ready for was parting ways with his clients. It was a really small agency and he was really tight with them. It was called Jandec, meaning January to December, working for them 24/7.

“Pierre Turgeon (a fellow 2023 Hall inductee) was at our house all the time, Patty Roy was our neighbour. They all had the key to our house. When he told them he was leaving for the Quebec job, I’ve never seen so many guys crying. Turgeon asked him ‘are we still going to be friends?’ It was weird to see grown men do that.

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“But it was the right time. He talked to my Mom, me and my brother and said ‘I need a different challenge. I’m a Montreal guy, they always won the Stanley Cup, my clients have won Cups and it all seems unbelievable. I want to do that for myself’

“That was the second time he’d been offered the job by the Nordiques and he was ready.”

A year later, the Nords moved to Colorado and won the Cup in ’96.

FAVOURITE LEAFS MEMORY

“We’d been eliminated in the AHL playoffs with St. John’s and (Baby Leafs’ coach) Marc Crawford told me I’d been called up to be with the Black Aces in Toronto.

“We were down 3-2 in the series to San Jose. I got back to my room at the Westin Harbour Castle and the message light was flashing on my phone. It was the late, great Pat Burns whom I knew in Montreal as a kid. In that deep voice, he growls ‘get ready to play tomorrow’.

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“So, I got up early next morning, went right to the Gardens all excited and the first people I see are (trainer) Brent Smith and (equipment man) Brian Papineau. They told me ‘get out, the scratches dress in the hallway.’

“I said ‘no, no I’m playing,’ they replied ‘no you’re not’ and sent me out to the hall. When Burnsie came in and saw me there he yells ‘whaddya doin’? Get in the (bleeping) room!’

“That was the game Mike Gartner won in overtime after (the Sharks’) Johan Garpenlov hit the crossbar. I played that game and the Game 7 we won. It was so much fun. Then (before the Western Conference final against Vancouver), Burnsie says in that same voice says ‘ah, you’re not playing.’

“I came back next training camp, but was traded to the Kings.”

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LOOSE LEAFS

GM Brad Treliving is firmly behind former Leaf Mark Kirton’s ALS Super Fund, as Toronto joins the six other Canadian NHL teams in a new initiative. “The cause is near and dear to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people and families worldwide,” Treliving said. “Both Borje Salming and (Treliving’s former Calgary employee) Chris Snow have touched the hockey community in unmeasurable ways and the Leafs are proud to play their part on raising awareness and helping fund research to fight this horrible disease” … Former GM Kyle Dubas and the Penguins are in town on Saturday. Pittsburgh’s first GM in 1967, Toronto-born Jack Riley, chose their original double-blue colours, either in homage for his hometown football Argonauts or his high school at the time, Humberside Collegiate.

THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY

The franchise’s first game was Dec. 19, 1917, a 10-9 road loss for the Blueshirts to the Montreal Wanderers … The New York Rangers visit Toronto Tuesday, almost 96 years to the day they became the first NHL team to fly to a game, losing 7-6 to the Leafs … Tuesday also marks 35 years since fiery John Brophy’s firing as Toronto coach.

Have a comment, question or want to see a former Leaf featured? Drop a line to [email protected] or @sunhornby.

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