An industrious checker and penalty killer who wore his NHL career on his face, Jerry Toppazzini never won a Stanley Cup. He never scored more than 25 goals or 50 points in a season and spent most of his career with three of the more moribund of the Original Six teams. He played almost 800 career games, but you’re probably not terribly familiar with him unless you’re either (a) from Sudbury or (b) a hockey geek.
Thankfully, I’m both. Yes, I’m happy and proud to have been born and raised in The Nickel Capital of the WorldTM. And when I learned Toppazzini had died recently at 81, it brought back a flood of wonderful memories. Not because I knew Toppazzini intimately – in fact, I probably didn’t exchange words with him more than a handful of times – but because he provided me with some of my most enduring memories and some of the most important touchstones for me in hockey.
The first came in the summer of 1972 when I was just nine. Jerry was a good friend of my uncle and it was at my cousin’s wedding reception my father took me over to meet him. I remember my palms were sweaty and all I could think was, “Holy cow! I’m actually going to shake hands with a guy who played in the NHL!” He was gracious, as he always was, but all I could do was mutter something about being a Montreal Canadiens fan before slinking back behind my dad.
I have spoken to hundreds of current and former NHLers since then, including some of the most legendary players the game has known. But none of those encounters will ever match the sense of exhilaration I experienced when I met Jerry Toppazzini.
The second came four years later when Toppazzini was behind the Sudbury Wolves bench. The Wolves haven’t won the Memorial Cup since 1932, but no team has ever come closer to ending the drought than that one. Led by future NHLers Randy Carlyle, Ron Duguay, Mike Foligno, Dave Hunter, Rod Schutt and Hector Marini, the Wolves made it to the Ontario Major Junior League final before losing to the Hamilton Fincups. The fact the Fincups tore the Wolves apart on the strength of Dale McCourt, who grew up in nearby Falconbridge, then went on to win the Memorial Cup was pretty much unbearable for my 13-year-old psyche.
But that Sudbury team was a marvel to watch, losing only 11 games that season with Toppazzini being named coach of the year.
“We were so young and so dumb and so green that we didn’t realize what a great coach we had,” said Jim Bedard, who played goal for the Wolves that season and now is the goaltending coach for the Detroit Red Wings. “I don’t ever remember seeing him play, but the way he coached, you could tell he probably didn’t lose too many battles for loose pucks. We didn’t know how lucky we were to have a guy like that preparing us. I do remember, though, that when we lost the final against Hamilton, we felt like we had let him down. He never let us down.”
The next year, Toppazzini bought a run-down hotel and turned it into the Beef ‘N Bird, a restaurant and bar that became a staple for fans and shift workers. About a decade later, Toppazzini introduced ‘Porketta Bingo’ to the Beef ‘N Bird, where winners would win not money, but a pound of porketta. At last count, Porketta Bingo had raised almost $300,000 for the Copper Cliff Minor Hockey Association. Copper Cliff, a company town that lured top players with the promise of cushy, well-paying mining jobs in exchange for playing for the local hockey team, was where Toppazzini grew up, playing with future NHLers George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Tod Sloan and his older brother Zellio, who was posthumously named to the to the American League’s Hall of Fame class for 2012.
Toppazzini and his ilk represent a golden age for hockey in northern Ontario, a time when a healthy percentage of the league’s players were culled from Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Kirkland Lake.
Toppazzini made it to the Stanley Cup final twice with the Boston Bruins, but it was right in the middle of the Montreal Canadiens run of five straight titles. He regularly drew the assignment of checking guys like Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe and earned most of his facial road map when Ted Lindsay clubbed him across the face, breaking both orbital bones and his nose. And for trivia buffs, Toppazzini goes down in history as the last skater to ever play goal when he grabbed Don Simmons’ blocker and trapper for the last 30 seconds of a game in 1960.
None of those things made Jerry Toppazzini a household name. But they were certainly good enough to fuel the passion of a young boy who had never before met an NHL player in the flesh.
Thank you for that, Jerry Toppazzini. Rest in peace.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.