Though it would be impossible to prove, the case could be made that Tim Horton was the strongest man ever to lace up skates in the National Hockey League. As a junior player with the St. Michael's College team in the Ontario Hockey League, Horton had NHL scouts and executives claiming he'd be the league's all-time great defenseman. But Horton's career, for all of its early promise, got off to a slow start. Though his attributes were obvious, he took a while to mature as a defensive player and spent several years moving back and forth between Toronto and its minor-league team in Pittsburgh. When he did find a regular job with the Maple Leafs during the 1952-53 season, respect was hard to come by, mostly because the expectations had been so high during his junior days.
In 1954, having just turned 24, Horton was selected to the league's Second All-Star Team and his career took off from there. With a few weeks left in the 1954-55 season, however, Horton broke his leg and jaw in a thunderous collision with the New York Rangers' Bill Gadsby. Gadsby later said it was the hardest hit he ever delivered. Horton, in traction and fed intravenously for days afterwards in the hospital, certainly agreed. When he returned to the ice after missing almost half of the 1955-56 season, he was slow to regain his form.
In 1958-59, Horton was paired on the blue line with Allan Stanley. Stanley's solid play allowed Horton to take a few more chances carrying the puck, knowing he had the speed to recover should he lose possession and that Stanley would be there to back him up. With Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer also starring on defense, the Leafs had a core of skilled, rugged and reliable defensemen. And the defense was the foundation of a Toronto team that won the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963 and 1964, with Horton earning a spot on the Second All-Star Team in 1963 and First Team honours in 1964. The team went through a minor slump in 1965 and for part of the season coach Punch Imlach moved Horton to the right wing on a line with George Armstrong and Red Kelly, another defenseman turned forward. Horton scored 12 goals, many of them with his huge slapshot from close range.
After the Leafs' last Stanley Cup win in 1967 - after which Horton was once again selected to the league's Second All-Star Team - the Maple Leafs went into decline. Many of the stars of the championship teams moved on or retired. Though he remained and was a First Team All-Star the following two seasons, Horton was tempted to retire in 1969 because of the success of his business off the ice, a chain of donut shops bearing his name, and of Punch Imlach's dismissal as coach of the club.
Horton claimed he wanted double his salary to even consider returning. Lacking any veteran leadership on its blue line, Toronto surprised Horton by giving him over $80,000, roughly double his salary of the year before. The team, so young that Horton was the oldest defender by 16 years, was dead last in the league in the spring of 1970. Horton's large salary was impractical for a team with little promise and he was traded to the New York Rangers. He spent a full season in New York in 1970-71, but was then selected in the next two intra-league expansion drafts, moving first to Pittsburgh for an injury-plagued season in 1971-72 and then to Punch Imlach's Buffalo Sabres.
Early in the morning of February 21, 1974, Tim Horton was killed in a single-car crash while driving home to Buffalo after a game in Toronto against his old team. Police who chased the sports car reported that it was traveling over 100 miles per hour before it crashed just outside of St. Catharines, Ontario. Toronto won the game that night, but Horton, even though he missed the third period with a jaw injury, was selected as the game's third star for his standout play. He left behind a wife and four daughters. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977. Today there are Tim Horton donut shops all across Canada.