Tim Horton: The hockey player who became a 'ghost in the corporate machine'
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The hockey player’s name is perhaps said more often than any other in Canada — no, it’s not Wayne Gretzky.
In all of the talk of what Burger King Worldwide Inc.’s acquisition of Tim Hortons means for Canada’s iconic brand, there’s little mention of Tim Horton, the man — a beloved Stanley Cup-winning defenceman for the 1950s and ’60s Maple Leafs, who died driving drunk near St. Catharines, Ont., in 1974.
“Horton is a ghost in the corporate machine,” said Douglas Hunter, author of a book on Miles Gilbert (Tim) Horton and another on Tim Hortons. “He has pretty much disappeared from the store that bears his name.”
Prior to his death, the coffee chain had begun to “disengage” Horton from the restaurant, said Hunter, as Horton was never comfortable as a “persona” and the company thought it was better business strategy to focus on the food. The phasing out of Horton the man continued in 1974 after the circumstances surrounding the Tim’s founder’s death mired the chain’s namesake in controversy.
On Feb. 21, 1974, Horton, who then played for the Buffalo Sabres, was heading to Buffalo for treatment after taking a puck to the jaw and stopped to meet with his partner in the doughnut shop chain, Ron Joyce, said Hunter.
At 4 a.m. Horton went off the road at high speed. Alcohol and pills were found at the scene, but at the time whether or not he was driving drunk was publicly disputed and unconfirmed.
The Ottawa Citizen put some of the speculation to rest in 2005 when a reporter obtained a copy of Horton’s autopsy once it became public record. The blood test showed Horton’s blood alcohol was twice the legal limit, and traces of Dexamyl, a prescription drug made of amphetamine and a barbiturate, had been found in his system.
“At the time he died there were about 50 restaurants open or in development, and they had just signed the first deal in Atlantic Canada — it was their first expansion outside of southern Ontario,” said Hunter.
Tim Hortons continued to grow without its founding partner.
Lori Horton, Tim’s widow, sued Joyce in the late ’80s, seeking to reverse her decision to sell her inherited share of Tim Hortons to Joyce for $1 million and a Cadillac Eldorado, arguing that she wasn’t mentally competent to make the decision due to her substance use.
“As part of her arguments a lot of dirty laundry — as Tim’s friends put it — came out. She said, ‘I’m not that bad person in this relationship, he had a drinking problem, he was angry, he was violent, and he threatened me,’” said Hunter. “There was a lot of airing of stuff that — fairly or not as he was not around to defend himself — was, on a very basic level for Tim Hortons the brand, a problem.”
By the time Lori Horton lost her case in 1993, there were about 700 Tim Hortons restaurants.
According to Hunter, the reason Tim Hortons continues to expand, with little acknowledgement of its founder is, in part, that the circumstances of his death and the legal controversies that followed made him “toxic” to the brand.
But Tim Horton wasn’t entirely erased from the restaurants. In fact, when a Tim Horton portrait, based on a photograph, was used as part of a “Tim Horton the Legend” promotion for the Tim Hortons children’s camps, Lori Horton sued the company arguing she had copyright of the photo.
“It was a spiteful suit after she lost the initial suit over the sale,” said Hunter. “She didn’t like his image being used in the stores to promote the camps.”
The company decided to take the posters down, said Hunter.
Although Horton is not often mentioned in Canada, Hunter said some of Tim Hortons’ marketing in the U.S. has included Tim Horton as a hockey player on American teams — neglecting his nearly two decades and four Stanley Cup wins with the Maple Leafs — to emphasize the company’s American connections.
Tim’s as Canada’s quintessential brand
The Tim Horton-less Tim Hortons became synonymous with Canadian identity in part of because “The (CBC show Royal Canadian) Air Farce really created the idea of a Canada, a country of doughnut-munching thinkers,” he said. “It was this group of idiot-savant Canadians who’d gather around the table and in their own kind of dopey way comment on the issues of the day, cementing this idea that doughnut shops are where Canadians gather together and thrash out what it means to be Canadian.”
The doughnut gang sketch, which ran through the ’90s and ’00s, ingrained doughnut shops as a part of the Canadian identity just as Tim Hortons was expanded rapidly — in part with the help of money from its last American owners, Wendy’s — tying those two ideas together, said Hunter.
Politicians picked up on the association with regular Canadians, which has turned Tim Hortons into a favoured spot for photo ops of politicians mingling with regular Canadians who hold regular Canadian values.
Today there are more than 3,600 Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada. A 2011 study found that on average, each Canadian spends about $150 year there. That’ll buy 93 regular double doubles.
“It’s just become this shorthand for who Canadians are,” said Hunter. “We’ve talked ourselves into this idea that Tim Hortons is where Canadians are found. Period. Don’t look anywhere else.”