John Gardner was the father of Toronto’s hockey-playing children for four decades

John Gardner dedicated his life to his family. And he wasn’t related to any of them.

The former president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League revelled in overseeing the largest minor-hockey league in the world, serving hundreds of thousands of youngsters over the 40-plus years of his involvement in the organization. And his work and dedication led to the development of some of the game’s greatest stars.

Gardner, a minor hockey icon in the area and Canada-wide, died of cancer Wednesday at Sunnybrook Hospital. He was 80.

“He will never be replaced,” said Joe Drago, who recently retired as chairman of Hockey Canada. “I don’t think there is anyone in Canada who has done more for minor hockey. I have a lot of respect for him … he was often ahead of his time. He was devoted and committed to the kids.”

Gardner first joined the organization, then known as the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League, as an elected member of its board of directors in 1975 and five years later became its president, a volunteer position he held for 35 years before announcing in 2015 he would not seek re-election.

The one-time amateur pilot was an only child who never married and never had children of his own, and the belief from friends was that minor hockey and those involved in the game became his surrogate family.

“He was dedicated and available to anyone in hockey 24/7,” says Scott Oakman, the GTHL’s executive director and a close friend of Gardner. “He volunteered … (he was) never paid a penny for his time or expertise.”

Gardner promoted the GTHL with a passion. He founded league newspapers, wrote opinion pieces for Toronto dailies, created a radio program dedicated to the league and at one point hand-picked two youngsters he knew from the Ryerson University media program and gave them the opportunity to produce a weekly Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League cable TV show in the early 1980s. The two “whippersnappers” were teenagers Keith Pelley and Scott Moore, two future giants in the sports television industry.

“John was just a big, fatherly figure,” Pelley told the Star’s Mary Ormsby in a 2009 feature on Gardner. “He was always good to us, he was eager to help and he always had one thing in mind: that was the kids.”

His expertise was certainly respected. In 1998, Gardner was summoned by the Canadian government to speak to a special committee on the impact of minor hockey in the Canadian economy.

“There is no question he was a good hockey man. His heart was in it all the way,” said Murray Costello, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association president for much of Gardner’s tenure. “He fought (the City of Toronto) to get ice for the kids. A lot of players got their start in that league.”

Among the former and current NHL stars who spent time developing in the GTHL: Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy, Adam Oates, Rick Tocchet, Brendan Shanahan, Eric Lindros, Rick Nash, Connor McDavid, Brent Burns, Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban, Tyler Seguin and current Maple Leafs John Tavares and Mitch Marner. And last weekend, first overall pick Jack Hughes was one of 14 GTHL grads to be selected in the NHL draft in Vancouver.

“He was a formidable figure,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said. “Without his input and opinion, I am not sure we would be where we are today in minor hockey.”

Gardner was born in Toronto on July 22, 1938, the only child of Loris and Frances Gardner. His father, Loris, was a mechanical engineer who worked for Ontario Hydro until retirement and designed the family’s Tudor-style home in North Toronto. It was on the backyard rink built by his father where Gardner first learned about hockey.

He would later play in the neighbourhood North Toronto Hockey Association and, after graduating from Bathurst Heights Collegiate, went on to play at the University of New Brunswick while studying mechanical engineering.

He worked briefly for Union Carbide upon graduation and then met legendary bush pilot Max Ward through mutual friends, moving to Wardair in 1972. Three years later, Gardner became an airline consultant, using two aircraft through Worldways Canada to charter flights over six years for NHL teams — primarily the Maple Leafs.

Gardner’s hockey passion never waned as an adult. He coached at North Toronto, where acquaintances steered him to the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League. With ideas and endless energy, Gardner was elected president in 1980 and transformed it into the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

And there was a charitable side to Gardner.

Oakman confirmed that to this day when a team pays its tournament entry fee to the league, $10 goes to the Dr. Tom Pashby Sports Safety Fund, an organization that exists to help in the prevention of catastrophic injuries in sport. Over the years and through various initiatives, the league has given $20,000 to the Fund, according to treasurer Bob Allan.

“About 2004, John made sure we were the first league to recognize and have rules for the return to play after a concussion as outlined by (neurosurgeon) Dr. Charles Tator,” Oakman said. “Safety for our players was very important to him.”

And Gardner was more than happy to help out when he could.

Toronto Young Nationals general manager Garry Punchard recalled when a team of 12-year-old Russian players came for a GTHL Christmas peewee tournament.

“Their equipment was old, used and in terrible shape,” Punchard said. “He made sure they all had good equipment when they went back home. The team stiffed the hotel they were in and, again, John paid from his own pocket.”

Gardner was awarded the Hockey Canada Order of Merit in 2006 for his contributions to Canadian amateur hockey, one of many honours he received over the decades.

GTHL president Don West is adding another one to that list, creating the John R. Gardner Special Recognition Award that will be presented annually to a player in the league for inspirational courage in overcoming adversity.

“When I approached John for his consent to name the award in his honour, he was reluctant at first, not wanting personal attention,” West said. “ He allowed it on one condition. He was concerned about the announcement that the Ontario government was cancelling a tree-planting program. He called it short-sighted as trees clean the air and water and mitigate climate change and asked me if there was anything the league could do.”

West subsequently had evergreen saplings distributed to the 300 club general managers at the recent GTHL annual meeting.

“It seems fitting that this man, who has promoted a fair, safe and healthy sport environment for kids all his life — a Gardner — is the advocate for this project to make the environmental future a little healthier for the next generation.”

“He was the most unselfish person I know,” said Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry, who was often recruited by Gardner to help out at events. “He was not in it for money or fame … just for the kids.”

No formal funeral will be held in Toronto for Gardner. As per his wishes, Gardner will be buried in New Brunswick alongside his parents.

With files from Mary Ormsby

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