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ONCE A LEAF: Paul Gardner followed dad into Blue & White, brother into NHL

Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Paul Gardner in his coaching days with the Nashville Predators.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Paul Gardner in his coaching days with the Nashville Predators.

Since 1917, more than 1,000 men have worn the Blue and White in Toronto’s NHL history. They’re part of a team that millions of Canadians grew up listening to, watching on TV or even seeing live, perhaps dreaming they could play for them one day.

Each has his own story, whether just one game or 20-plus seasons. Some won multiple Stanley Cups, others are part of the current 53-year drought. The Sun is profiling select Leafs and their experience in Toronto, with a look at Paul Gardner, whose father, Cal, won two Cups here before Paul played and coached in the organization:

PAUL GARDNER

Born: March 5, 1956 in Fort Erie, Ont.

Position: Centre

Number: 18

Leafs Years: 1978-80

Leafs Stats: 62 games, 18 goals, 16 assists 34 points, 37 PIM

THEN
Coming ‘home’ to the Gardens was a thrill for Cal’s son, while older brother Dave was a prolific scorer in the same building with the junior Marlies.

“Both of them were great influences in my career,” said Paul. “Dad didn’t want to pressure me much as I progressed (Paul had a 144-point year with the Oshawa Generals in 1975-76). He just made sure we both got to our games and gave us a couple of pointers.

“Dave (part of a legendary light-the-lamp line with Steve Shutt and Billy Harris) first made his contribution by letting me play with him and the older kids in our backyard.”

Moving from Fort Erie to Toronto at an early age, Paul represented Leaside at the 1968 Quebec peewee tournament with future NHLer Mike McEwen and Andy Edur, whose brother Tom would be Paul’s teammate with the Colorado Rockies.

From Denver, where Gardner was a first-round pick of their previous incarnation, the Kansas City Scouts, he was traded to the Leafs in March of 1979 for Don Ashby and Trevor Johansen.

“The odd thing was, dad had never rewarded himself and my mom (Mary) with a vacation until that spring. So he was in Florida and missed my first Leafs game at the Gardens.

“But what a dream come true. I couldn’t get to Toronto fast enough. I’d walk around the halls of the Gardens with all the old pictures, including one of my dad in same frame as Bill Barilko’s (1951 overtime Cup-winning) goal. Dad remembered Bill flying past him from defence to move up and score it. He took me to games there when I was six or seven and I had to wear a shirt and tie.

“Roger Neilson was coach when I got there, Jim Gregory the general manager. It was a good team, but we couldn’t get by a better one in Montreal in the playoffs.”

Gardner’s best NHL years were with Pittsburgh after new GM Punch Imlach moved him out, 98 goals and 100 assists in three full seasons. The move to coach the Leafs required a little kismet as Gardner ended his playing days in the AHL.

“I became assistant in Rochester my last year (in ‘85-86) and one of my duties was taking shots on the backup goalies after practice. One was Bob McNamara (Leafs GM Gerry’s son) who heard I was retiring.

“Next thing I knew,” he said, “Gerry called, I interviewed that day and got the job in Newmarket (where the Leafs had just moved their farm team).”

The Saints were a mixed bag in those days, reflecting the turmoil in Toronto. They included a teenaged Tie Domi, the misfit Miro Ihnacak, along with veterans in their sunset years and green goalies. Gardner couldn’t get them to the playoffs more than once in four years. But coaching became his life’s passion.

“Gerry and (successor) Gord Stellick were good to me, I got along with Mr, Ballard,” he said. “I just wish I was a little older when I started coaching. I felt the more I did it, the better I got.”

NOW

Gardner became right-hand man to a rising AHL bench boss Barry Trotz. They moved together from Baltimore to Portland in the AHL and the expansion Nashville Predators.

“I loved working with younger players,” Gardner said. “If I couldn’t play in the NHL, this was the next best thing.”

As Gardner left his Preds post to become a scout, prospects such as Scott Hartnell, David Legwand, Kimmo Timonen, Karlis Skrastins and Tomas Vokoun went on to the playoffs. Gardner’s eventful head coaching tour of Europe included two years in Germany with the Hamburg Freezers and time in the KHL with Yarosalvl.

“An agent in New Jersey had said my name came up in Russia,” Gardner said. “Let’s just say (ownership) runs teams differently over there. But it was good experience. I came back to the Central League (now living near one of his old CHL teams, the Mississippi River Kings across the water from Memphis) and am now retired, but I’d coach again if it’s the right offer.”

Gardner tries to get in a half-hour morning bike ride before the oppressive Southern heat, golfs a bit and keeps tabs on his large family. He and second wife Sherri have twin 19-year-old junior college students Skyler and Connar, the latter a 6-foot-3 baseball catcher who hopes to move up and play at Ole Miss. Three children from his previous marriage are in their 30s — Scott a Nashville lawyer, Ashley a Vancouver journalist and Lindsay an exec with TD Bank.

FAVOURITE LEAFS MEMORY

Paul said his dad wasn’t one to flaunt his celebrity with the Leafs. If prodded, Cal would point to a souvenir silver cigarette case from one of the Cup years, a medallion for lifetime entrance to the Gardens, while Dave and Paul each inherited his Cup rings from ‘51 and ‘49.

“In the basement, we had a ping pong table, not much hockey stuff,” Paul said. “But dad had been given his (No. 17) jersey by the team for scoring the Cup winning goal in ‘49. It was kept in a box in his bedroom, never on display or shown to anyone.

“I later had it framed with special glass that won’t allow the sun to fade it or let anything inside. I was so protective of the sweater, I didn’t let the frame guy leave my house; he had to work on it all night. I joked with my wife and kids, if the place ever catches on fire, I’m coming back for this first.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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