The first time Bill Vigars met Terry Fox was shortly into the Marathon of Hope, when Fox assigned him a long wish list for weeks down the road when the determined one-legged runner intended to reach Toronto.
“He wanted me to set up meeting Darryl Sittler, Bobby Orr, see a Blue Jays game and go up the CN Tower,” said Vigars, still in awe of Fox’s audacity on that June day 43 years ago. “Not because Terry thought himself a star like Darryl was on the Maple Leafs, but for what the publicity) would do to help raise more money.”
Vigars, then a 33-year-old emissary from the Ontario Branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, had initially spoken with Fox via a roadside pay phone, long before cell service. Fox, with brother Darrell and pal Doug Alward were passing through Sheet Harbour, N.S., basically living out of their Ford Econoline van. Terry was running 26 miles a day, already crossing Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, the others making sure he ate, rested and was shielded on open highways with transports whizzing by.
“Terry was bummed out, there was nothing much happening news-wise,” said Vigars.
That quickly changed with the veteran p.r. man’s arrival, culminating with the defining day of the Marathon of Hope with Sittler running with Fox into Nathan Phillips Square on July 11. But Fox’s first ask of Vigars to start lining up celebs – including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau when they were to pass through Ottawa – completely floored him.
“While Terry’s rhyming off Darryl and the P.M., I’m looking at my assistant, Deborah Kirk, going ‘uhhh, yeah, sure, I’ll call you back tomorrow’. But the worst thing people can say is ‘no’. And when I got in touch with Darryl through his agent, Alan Eagleson, he was the first to say ‘yes’.”
The Leafs captain had read the early dispatches from the Maritimes; how the university student from Port Coquitlam, B.C., lost his leg below the knee to cancer in 1977, and was inspired to cross Canada after reading about an American amputee who took up marathons.
“I thought Holy Moses, this guy has got guts and courage,” Sittler said. “I trained, but to go 26 miles every day on one leg? Little did I know how far he’d get.”
After harrowing adventures through Quebec, hampered by language differences and less co-operation from that province’s police and CCS wing, Fox reached the nation’s capital. He did get an audience with Trudeau and aced the ceremonial kick-off at an Ottawa Rough Riders CFL game.
With Vigars’s help, MOH fund-raising gained full steam moving west. Stopping just outside Toronto, Fox was given a huge civic reception in Scarborough and visited Variety Village, the world-renowned facility for young disabled athletes.
Fox overnighted at the midtown Four Seasons Hotel and figured Sittler would await him at the next day’s City Hall ceremony after coming down University Ave. But the future Hall of Famer, clincher of the 1976 Canada Cup and record holder of a 10-point game was at the hotel bright and early.
“I just poked my head in his room and said: ‘Who wants to go for a run?’, ” Sittler recalled. “I wanted to meet him as much as he wanted to meet me. He was sitting on the end of the bed and his eyes really lit up.
“Someone e-mailed me an old picture of us before we started, standing there with our curly hair.”
As Vigars chronicles in his new book, Terry and Me, with former Toronto Sun newshound Ian Harvey, a funny episode lightened the MOH saga when Vigars asked colleague Ray Bedard to vacate his room a few minutes for Sittler to change into running gear. Among other deeds, the bilingual Bedard had saved the day in Quebec when cops deemed Terry a traffic hazard and wanted him off the road for his safety. Bedard slickly convinced them he was a member of Trudeau’s staff assigned to Fox.
What Bedard couldn’t fake was any interest in pro team sports. Strictly a boater and angler, he asked Sittler to repeat his name as they shook hands.
“And what do you do?”
“I play hockey”.
“Oh, my Dad might know you.”
Vigars was worried Bedard had offended their special guest, but his friend just shrugged.
“If he was a great bass fisherman, then I’d know him.”
The group then hit the streets where Sittler and others kept a respectable pace behind Fox.
“What happened next was the most moving event I ever saw,” Sittler said.
Wearing his famous map of Canada tee-shirt and intense grimace, Fox led the phalanx that included Sittler, his brother, Alward and volunteers who were quickly filling plastic buckets with bills, the old green singles, salmon-coloured twos and blue fives. In the hospitals and office buildings on lower University, workers pressed to the windows to cheer.
Darrell Fox, meanwhile, was lapping up the attention of his famous namesake, waving to the girls who were shouting ‘hey Darryl!’ as he and Sittler passed.
None were prepared for the sight when they turned into the square, where a stage was set up and a massive crowd had gathered.
“As Terry ascended the stairs, 10,000 souls let loose the biggest cheer I’ve ever experienced,” Vigars wrote. “The skyscrapers around us seemed to amplify the sound. I imagine that’s what it’ll sound like if the Leafs ever win the Cup.”
Fox’s parents, Rolly and Betty, had flown in from B.C. as a surprise and Sittler was on stage with emcee Al Waxman. Sittler reached into the paper bag he’d brought and handed Fox his No. 27 sweater from the NHL all-star game.
“I didn’t play in many of those, so it was special to me,” Sittler said. “(But) I’m thinking, what can I do as a Canadian to show my appreciation for what he’s done?.”
Vigars said the look on Fox’s face after poking his head through the gifted jersey and hearing more applause is one of his mosty cherished memories. Fox at last believed his message had truly resonated as he made one of his most emotional speeches about the MOH and finding a way to beat cancer.
“Terry was a Sittler fan, not so much a Leaf fan, as his Dad loved the Bruins,” said Vigars. “Orr had been in Europe when we first contacted him, but they did get together at the hotel while Terry was still running in the Toronto area.”
The two discussed their injuries, Orr rolling up his pant leg to reveal a road map of knee scars from surgeries that had forced him to retire a year before.
“You were the greatest hockey player in the world,” Fox told Orr. “And if it could help you play again, I’d give you my good knee and still find a way back to Vancouver.”
When Fox reached Orr’s birthplace of Parry Sound, Bobby had phoned ahead to his father Doug, who invited Terry to visit, gave him his son’s Canada Cup sweater and a framed photo of Orr’s 1970 Cup-winning goal.
Fox would not complete his quest. On Sept. 1, just outside Thunder Bay in weakened condition, he summoned a doctor. His cancer had returned, ending his run at the 3,339-mile mark after 143 days. A tearful Vigars struggled to write the official press release, embracing Fox’s parents as Terry was stretchered onto a medivac flight home.
But in just a couple of days, the Marathon of Hope became the Telethon of Hope as people would not stop sending money to CCS offices across the country. Canadian and international stars pulled together via the CTV network; Sittler, Anne Murray, Gordon Pinsent, Elton John, John Denver and many others.
In his hospital room, joined by Vigars, Fox watched as $10.5 million was pledged.
“He just had this amazing look of contentment,” Vigars said, “He asked ‘can you believe it?’ as we saw the totals on screen. “Psychologically, that moment saved me as I’d been such a wreck a few days earlier when we put him on that plane.”
Fox would be Sittler’s guest in the Leafs’ dressing room when Toronto played in Vancouver that season, but died June 28, 1981. Sittler has a signed Ken Danby painting of Fox and shared the grief of all the cancer stricken when it took his first wife, Wendy, in 2001.
Three months after his passing, the first of the annual Terry Fox runs across Canada were organized, soon to be taken up around the world by people of all ages. To date they’ve raised an estimated $750 million. Fox’s image has been on everything from the Canadian passport to commemorative coins.
“He had no ego, never wanted to be a hero,” Vigars insisted. “He only wanted to show he was no different than anyone else and that dreams can come true if you try.
“Everything he did and everything that continues to be done in his name was meant to find a cure for cancer.”
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.
Centre Dan Hodgson
Born: Aug. 29, 1965
40 GP, 1985-86, 13 G, 12 A, 25 P, 12 PIM
THEN: Drafted by Toronto 85th overall in 1983 from WHL Prince Albert, he was top scorer of the Memorial Cup winning Raiders in ’85. They were a mean team that included future Leafs Ken Baumgartner and Dave Manson. Hodgson would attain more than 500 points in three years of junior.
But he was “feeling antsy” on draft day at the Montreal Forum as WHL pals such as Russ Courtnall and Cam Neely were picked ahead of him, Courtnall in the first round by the Leafs.
“I’d thought I’d go a little higher,” Hodgson said. “Then Toronto called a timeout, (general manager) Gerry McNamara came over to where my agent, Bill Watters, and I were sitting.
“Gerry took me behind that big red curtain on the draft floor and asked how tall I was. I told him 5-11, even though I was 5-10 and standing on an incline. I also told him I was 185 pounds when I was actually 175. He asked how much I really wanted to play in the NHL and when I said ‘more than anything’, he picked me.”
Hodgson was set to join the youth oriented Leafs in the ’85-86 season, Wendel Clark’s first year, with Courtnall (a Canadian world junior teammate), Gary Leeman, Al Iafrate, Jim Benning and Gary Nylund. But a training camp accident when he went face first into the helmet of teammate Greg Terrion broke his nose and cheekbone. After two months recovery, he never found consistency.
“I was moved around the lines and for a while was with Marian Stastny and Miro Ihnacak, Peter’s brother. It was a cool mix of young players with Rick Vaive as our captain, but the organization (with Harold Ballard at the top) was weird. The word I’d use is directionless.”
Dan Maloney, the coach he was on good terms with, was let go that spring and Hodgson demoted to start the next season under John Brophy. He was eventually traded to Vancouver with Benning for defenceman Rick Lanz. He played parts of three seasons for the Canucks before spending the next 15 years in Switzerland.
One of his stops was Auston Matthews’ future club, the Zurich Lions.
“That’s not bad, being an alumnist on two of his teams,” Hodgson said of the Hart Trophy Leaf.
NOW: Hodgson lives in Fort McMurray, Alta., and works in the oil and gas field in nearby Fort McKay for Bouchier, a completely Indigenous- owned company. He married a Swiss girl and has children, grandchildren and other family members in both countries.
Prince Albert is retiring his No. 16, that he also wore as a Leaf, at a home game in November.
FAVOURITE LEAF MOMENT: Hodgson is immensely proud of his Cree heritage and though George Armstrong was not with the Leafs when he was, Hodgson was well aware of the legend of the dynasty era captain.
“Everyone called me Chief in Toronto, a tribute to George. “But when you’re an Indigenous player, I found you have to work that much harder to prove yourself.”
When Upper Deck unveiled the first set of hockey cards of Indigenous players earlier this year, Hodgson was included.
“If I had a nickel for every time I got asked for my hockey card,” Hodgson told the Canadian Press. “For 37 years I’d have to say ‘sorry I don’t have one’. But the way it came out, with the Indigenous side, I think that’s quite privileged.”
There will be a rededication of the Pat Quinn Parkdale rink in the late coach’s native Hamilton on Saturday at 11 a.m. with special guests Steve Thomas, Mike Pelyk and a free skate between noon and 2 p.m. … During this week’s prospects tournament in Traverse City. Mich., Todd Crocker is handling play-by-play on-line for the three games Leaf rookies play versus Columbus, Dallas and Detroit … A couple of 30-something former Leafs/Marlies are starting the season with Munich Red Bull of the DEL, Ben Smith and Andrew MacWilliam … Hockey author Mike Commito’s latest is Leafs 365, a short story for every day of the calendar year.
THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY
Thirty years ago this week, Toronto played outside of North America for the first time. The two-game French’s Mustard Cup exhibition at London’s Wembley Arena against the New York Rangers drew about 7,000 fans each day as the Leafs were beaten 5-3 and 3-1 … Twenty years ago, they began training camp in Stockholm, before playing club teams in Sweden and Finland in a triumphant homecoming for Mats Sundin … On Sunday, Matthews turns 26 and coach Sheldon Keefe 43.
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