Orr? Espo? Dryden? Nope, Downie's favourite hockey player was Laverne Hennessy
Laverne Hennessy was a longtime opponent from Downie's youth hockey days in eastern Ontario.
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Considering the late Gord Downie was an unabashed Bruins fan, you might think his favourite hockey player would have been a Boston legend like Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque or Cam Neely.
Former NHL great Doug Gilmour, a fellow native of Kingston, Ont., would also be a good pick. Downie also had a soft spot for Canada's 1972 Summit Series team — coached by his godfather Harry Sinden — that included Hall of Famers like Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke and Ken Dryden.
But instead of a household name, the Tragically Hip singer's rather obscure choice, according to fellow musician and friend Dave Bidini, was Laverne Hennessy.
Music, pop culture, and of course, hockey — a popular subject in many Hip tunes — were all part of Bidini's wide-ranging conversations with Downie. When the topic of favourite hockey players came up several years ago, names like Dave Keon and Wendel Clark were mentioned before Downie made his head-scratching choice of Hennessy.
"I remember him telling me that he watched (Hennessy) as a kid," Bidini recalled earlier this week following Downie's death Tuesday night. "I guess he had the moves."
So who is Laverne Hennessy?
A longtime opponent from Downie's youth hockey days in eastern Ontario, Hennessy played four games for the OHL's Cornwall Royals in 1982-83.
"I hated him, he hated me, but really we liked each other, you know what I mean?" Hennessy said. "I guess he must have liked how I played, and I liked how he played."
In 1982, the Royals drafted Hennessy — then a six-foot 177-pound forward — from the Picton Midgets. A medical issue cut short his hockey career just as it was taking off.
As a youngster, Downie played the goaltender position in nearby Amherstview, just outside of Kingston. He would face off against Hennessy's team at least four or five times a season.
"I played centre. I wasn't scrappy, I didn't fight, but I know I scored a lot of goals on him," Hennessy said from his hometown of Hillier, Ont. "But he probably made a lot of saves on me too. Did he and I ever sit down at a table and have a conversation? No we didn't.
"But walking through the rink, (I) would see him and stare him down and he would see me and stare me down."
Downie maintained his love for the game into adulthood. Bidini's Toronto-based band Rheostatics joined the Hip for three national tours in the 1990s and he frequently laced up the skates with Downie for shinny and recreational hockey games.
Hennessy said he has been told on a couple of occasions in the past that Downie was a fan and had asked how he was doing.
"I was kind of surprised that he even remembered who I was," Hennessy said. "Everybody knows who he is. But obviously I was shocked that he would remember who I was."
The Picton-Amherstview hockey rivalry was intense. Hennessy recalled that parents and spectators would fill the local rinks and there was plenty of trash talk on the ice.
"I would go in and razz him when I would score," he said. "When he would save it, he would razz me back."
Bidini said the Hennessy talking point was one of many fascinating discussions he had with Downie. He said the Hip singer's memory was "like a steel trap" and his unique perspective made their talks enjoyable and interesting.
"His favourite book was 'Winesburg, Ohio' by Sherwood Anderson and his favourite movie was 'Peggy Sue Got Married' with Nicolas Cage," Bidini said. "Again, not obvious things. But when something really grabbed him, it really kind of stuck. It's why he was so much fun to talk to."
Last year, Downie revealed he had terminal brain cancer. He died Tuesday night.
"Everything in Gord's life impressed upon him," Bidini said. "He was able to retain. That was the toughest part of him getting sick, he had a hard time recalling a lot of stuff."
Hennessy, meanwhile, stayed involved in the sport once his playing days were over. He was a trainer for a few years and coached his son's local team.
Now 52, he works as a millwright at a paper mill.
"I just wish I could have had a (hockey) career of my own," he said. "But that's how life goes. You've got to play the hand you're dealt."
The 1982-83 Royals squad was anchored by Gilmour, who took league MVP honours after recording 70 goals and 177 points. Cornwall was a junior hockey powerhouse at the time, with Memorial Cup victories in 1980 and '81.
Hennessy did not record a point in four regular-season games.
"Gord could illuminate even the smallest detail," Bidini said. "I think that speaks to his appreciation for this player. This little small tile in the enormous mosaic. It's wild."
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