Five decades and 40 years of volunteer service culminated in one night of celebration as more than 500 members of the hockey community gathered Thursday to pay tribute to John Gardner, who recently retired from his position as GTHL president.
Mr. Gardner was first elected to the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League Board of Directors in 1975 before taking over as president in 1980, a position he held through the 2014-15 hockey season. He took the helm at age 40 to become the youngest president in League history.
Among the guests Thursday were longtime friends and colleagues of Mr. Gardner, including members of the Lawrence Park Athletics, a team he coached in the 1960s; Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Tom Renney and chairman Joe Drago; NHL senior vice president of Hockey Operations Jim Gregory; and former Member of Parliament Julian Fantino.
In his speech, Drago called Mr. Gardner “one of the most respected and appreciated men in minor hockey.”
Former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion and Fran Rider, one of the founders of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, also spoke and presented Mr. Gardner with a special photo.
“For you to retire at your age, I just don’t believe it. You’re just a kid,” joked Ms. McCallion. “Think of the young people whose lives you touched, you are leaving a legacy.”
Though he was unable to attend the event, Don Cherry, a longtime GTHL supporter and friend of Mr. Gardner, shared his best wishes through a taped message.
Norris Trophy winner and GTHL graduate P.K. Subban – whose parents attended the event – was one of many NHL players to congratulate Mr. Gardner, giving him the “Don Cherry thumbs up.” Subban’s Montreal Canadiens teammate Devante Smith-Pelly, Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, Maple Leafs forwards Brad Boyes and Shawn Matthias and defenseman Frank Corrado also taped #thankyouJRG messages.
“You’re a true gentleman, and all of us who played in the GTHL owe you a great debt,” said Maple Leafs president and alternate governor Brendan Shanahan in his message. Shanahan played in the MTHL for the Mississauga Reps and Toronto Young Nationals.
Capitals forward Tom Wilson also sent a video message following a practice in Washington.
Another longtime friend and supporter of minor hockey, Lois Kalchman, also shared a special message for Mr. Gardner.
“Eli Martel said that you were a better politician than many of the politicians that sat in government,” recalled Kalchman. “They could not understand how you got what you wanted, when you got it and how you got it. But you did.”
In her video Kalchman also shared stories of Mr. Gardner that span their 40-year friendship and joked that she would love to have “one good argument,” like they often did during his tenure.
“You’ve done a lot for minor hockey, a lot that we as parents appreciate,” added Kalchman. “You’ve been kind to the kids and you always wanted the kids to come out on top.”
Mr. Gardner took the stage near the end of the evening to discuss his minor hockey journey, capturing the audience with an emotional story about how his work at the Hospital for Sick Children led to his desire to always put kids first.
Keeping with the beliefs that characterized his 40-year career, Mr. Gardner took the opportunity to advise today’s minor hockey leaders.
“If you want to grow, you have to change. Players are number one. Make changes that make it better for the players.”
At the request of Mr. Gardner, the event raised money for the GTHL Legacy Fund, an initiative introduced in 2011 to provide financial support to GTHL families in need. Donations and fundraising efforts have helped the fund grow to more than $475,000 since its inception. The League will begin distributing the money after the fund reaches a minimum balance of $750,000.