|Jim Gregory, who is currently the NHL's Sr. VP of Hockey Operations, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend as a builder.
There's an American construction-material retailer that uses the slogan; "Let's build something together." To hear his friends tell it, Jim Gregory could have coined that phrase.
He sheds praise and deflects credit to others, minimizes the difficulties of his endeavors and brings a sunny optimism to work every day. After a health scare last year, Gregory, 72, was advised to slow down. He takes a day off now and then from his job as senior vice president of hockey operations for the NHL, but NHL.com caught up with him during a business trip to Detroit with his long-time friend and Central Scouting icon Frank Bonello.
In a nutshell, here's the kind of person Jim Gregory is: The highlight of his 10-year tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was his team's victory over the New York Islanders in the second round of the 1978 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders had won the Patrick Division title and were comprised of many of the same players who would win four Stanley Cups from 1980-83.
A lot of people thought the Islanders were good enough to beat the Montreal Canadiens, who were in the process of winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1976-79. It turned out the Islanders weren't good enough to beat Toronto, third in the Adams Division. Lanny McDonald scored at 4:13 of the second overtime in Game 7 to defeat the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
Gregory's reaction when asked to reflect on that success?
"That was nice," Gregory said. "But then-Islanders GM Bill Torrey is a great friend and I don't like to see friends suffer. Fortunately, he had a lot of success later on. I don't consider that victory the high point of my career. The high point was getting a job in hockey and I can't say enough good things about the two guys who helped me, the late Father Dave Bauer and the late Stafford Smythe."
But didn't Smythe stick you in the family sand pit, Jim? The Smythes' sand and gravel business provided a constant flow of money that helped Smythe run hockey teams, build Maple Leaf Gardens and organize military units to join the Canadian Armed Forces. For the Smythes, the sand pit was a gushing oil well, and quite a few prominent players and coaches, including the great Hap Day, were assigned to work at the pit.
"Yeah, he did," Gregory laughed. "Father Bauer was my mentor and introduced me to Stafford as a candidate for a full-time job. I had a job making $65 a week and Stafford asked how much I was making. I said $95 a week. Stafford said, 'You'll work full-time at the sand pit in the summer and part-time at hockey, running the junior team. In the winter, you'll work hockey full-time and the pit part-time. I'll pay you $65 a week for the full-time job and $30 for the part-time job.' I'm thinking, great, I just finagled a $30 raise.
"Stafford was running the pit in those days and Conn ran the Gardens and Maple Leafs. Later, I was made director of scouting for the Maple Leafs and spent a lot of time with Conn."
Conn Smythe had his eccentricities, including a belief in the superiority of his adopted Protestant religion -- his father was a cash-strapped but famous Theosophy lecturer -- over Catholicism. This belief couldn't be shaken despite the fact that two of his most trusted allies, Gregory and King Clancy, were Catholics.
"Conn always called me 'Pope' because I was Catholic," Gregory laughed. "I'd been full time with the Maple Leafs for about five years and was coaching the Marlies (Toronto’s junior team) against a Czech team in 1964. Stafford was watching when they got three fast goals to tie us, 4-4. He came down behind our bench - they were open to the crowd in those days - and solidly bumped me in the back. I heard him sneer; 'Is our goalie Catholic?'
"I responded with something like, 'Jump off, Stafford.' The next day I get called into his office and he says I can tell him to jump off all I want, but I'd better be right. Then he says, 'Oh, and one more thing, I knew you were only making $65 when you applied here.' It bugged him for five years and he couldn't keep it inside anymore."
Gregory also was keeping something bottled up inside.
"I couldn't believe my luck, working for the Maple Leafs in important jobs, so one day it got the better of me and I asked Stafford why he had hired me. He said; 'I just had a feeling you were going to be a good hockey man. I watched you and made up my mind.'
"That was a heck of a thing for a young guy who had been cut from junior hockey to wind up having a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Let me tell you, in Canada that was like winning the lottery and going to heaven, in the same breath."
Gregory has one regret - a common one in hockey - that he never got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
"I worked with the Maple Leafs in 1967, when they won their last Stanley Cup," Gregory said. "Punch Imlach got sick and Clancy took over the coaching and I filled in as interim manager, spending as much time with the Maple Leafs as with the Marlies that I was managing. I traveled with the team for about six weeks during the middle of the season. I got a Stanley Cup ring that year and for 1964. In those days, guys in the supporting cast didn't get their name engraved. Now they do. But my name is on a plaque on the wall of Maple Leaf Gardens.
"It was around that time that I was asked to get up-to-date on NHL players before the expansion. My goal had been to spend my career as manager of the junior team that supported the Maple Leafs. Then I got to work in scouting with Bob Davison, the Maple Leafs’ chief scout for about 30 years who had captained the team in the 1940s. Conn loved Bob and when Bob approved of me, Conn and I became close."
Gregory attended high school at St. Michael's College and later coached the junior team, which was affiliated with the Maple Leafs. Team coaches included Bauer and former Maple Leafs stars Joe Primeau and Bob Goldham. Gregory later became coach and led them to the first of his three Memorial Cups.
The league was disbanded, a new one formed and St. Michael's dropped out after a year. Gregory led another Catholic high school into the league, the Neil McNeil’s. The league reorganized again in 1963, merging the Marlboros with the Neil McNeil’s. With Gregory again as coach and general manager, they won the Memorial Cup that year. Gregory managed and Gus Bodnar coached the Marlies' 1967 Memorial Cup winner.
The Maple Leafs assigned Gregory in 1967 to coach their minor-league affiliate, the original Canucks in Vancouver. He was brought back the next year to focus on scouting. He was appointed to replace Imlach as GM in the spring of 1969 and hired John McLellan to coach the Maple Leafs. Conn Smythe's role had diminished and the organization then was under the control of Harold Ballard and Stafford Smythe.
It was a wild ride. Ballard loved to play to the media and Gregory constantly was putting out fires, squelching rumors, including trade rumors started by Ballard. There was a constant battle for control of the front office. Ballard and Stafford Smythe were charged with income-tax evasion in 1969 and John Bassett gained control of the team. A year later, Ballard and Smythe won a proxy battle and returned to power, which Ballard maintained throughout his stay in Kingston Penitentiary, the minimum-security Millhaven Institution and a Toronto halfway house, from August 1972 to October 1973.
"My dad had to go to the Kingston prison to have Ballard sign contracts and other Maple Leafs business," said David Gregory, Jim’s son and a good hockey player who went on to become president and general manager of the AHL New Haven Nighthawks.
The Maple Leafs teams that won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s were an aging group when Jim Gregory took over. He rebuilt the team around players like Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull, Ron Ellis, Dave "Tiger" Williams and goalie Mike Palmateer. Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle and Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson were talented prospects in the organization when they upset the Islanders.
After the Maple Leafs were eliminated in 1978 and 1979 by the Canadiens, Ballard fired Gregory and brought back Imlach.
When Gregory started in the NHL, the Canadiens had the rights to the top Quebec players, while Toronto and Detroit had rights to players from parts of Ontario. Basically, the other three teams could go fetch. Montreal also was successful in tying up a lot of Western Canadian players. With expansion looming and the three outcast teams demanding change, Toronto realized that henceforth it would have to stock its system through the new entry draft. Gregory was placed in charge of scouting and the Maple Leafs benefited greatly.
"I was the first player that Jim Gregory drafted as general manager," Darryl Sittler said. "I'd only been once to Maple Leaf Gardens, after a junior game. Jim walked me into the dressing room, to my locker, and I saw that they were giving me No. 27, Frank Mahovlich's old number. For them to give me, a young kid, the honor of wearing that number, well, I've never forgotten that.
"Jim's whole life has been hockey and trying to make the game better. He's a soft-spoken, good family man and all-around solid person who truly cares about the people he works with and for. He was a father figure to me when I was a young player in a new, big city. We had good times, but it's always a challenge to be GM in Toronto. It's a high-profile job and Jim was in a difficult situation with Harold Ballard, who was cantankerous and controversial. Jim did a wonderful job of keeping things in balance and putting out fires. He kept the players informed and kept us settled down. He was always responding to some wacky statement Ballard had made to the media.
"I remember Jim and Alan Eagleson negotiating my contract with Ballard at the Kingston prison, truly unusual and peculiar circumstances. One time, Ballard told the media that Inge Hammarstrom could go into a corner with a pocket full of eggs and come out with none broken. Jim had to respond to that, settle Inge down. They fired Jim, brought Punch back and he dismantled the team, traded 11 players from the team that beat the Islanders. The fans remember the character of that team. We had colorful guys who were really close-knit and difficult to play against.
"A GM is successful if he can take the people in his organization and get them to play to their potential. Jim did that. He was a good hockey person who surrounded himself with good people. We were all glad to see him go on to the league office. Trust me, everyone in hockey will say good things about Jim."
|Gregory was instrumental in bringing over European talent to the NHL.
Gregory was the first to sign a European player, in 1973, when he brought over Swedish left winger Hammarstrom, and he continued to keep an eye on European developments. Ballard's comments didn't help later, at a critical juncture of NHL history.
"The one thing I would do over, I wouldn't have listened, I would have done it: I had a chance to get Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. Getting them or not amounted to money that Ballard didn't want to spend. We were having trouble with Hammarstrom, so Ballard was wary. Those two would have added a goal and a half a game. Hedberg really wanted to play for Toronto."
Gregory didn't have time to collect unemployment checks after leaving the Leafs.
"NHL President John Ziegler and Vice President Bryan O'Neill offered me a job with Central Scouting," Gregory said. "Team general managers like Bill Torrey, Harry Sinden and Emile Francis helped get Central Scouting started and the first director was Jack Button, who did an unbelievable job. I was the next director, then Frank Bonello and now E.J. McGuire. I think that particularly in the last few years it has been a very rewarding and successful operation thanks to the work of everyone involved. But you give me too much credit for creating it."
"This Central Scouting operation that I inherited from Jim Gregory and Frank Bonello is Jim's baby," McGuire said. "It has evolved into a conglomerate of services that we provide to the 30 teams. He's getting credit for it by going into the Hall as a builder. This is one of the things he built.
"Jim is a hard, hard worker and one of the things we have to do is make sure he eats right. He's got a cache of candy and pretzels and tries to work long hours on snacks instead of meals. He's been quite a mentor to me and he has a great recollection of important moments in hockey history. The rules, the referees and the video room in Toronto are also things he's been in charge of.”
"Jim also started the fund for needy NHL players," McGuire added. "It's funded by suspension-related fines. Jim would see retired players who weren't sure what they were going to do after hockey or players who were having hard times and he'd give them games to scout and teach them how to do it. Then he'd direct those guys to teams and they'd have jobs."
As Gregory's responsibilities in the League office increased, he tabbed Bonello, his former junior coaching rival, to head Central Scouting.
"I've known Jim since 1963 and don't know anyone who works harder at hockey than Jim," Bonello said. "I had been a part-time scout and coached the Toronto Marlboro Juniors. I took over as manager of the Marlboros for the next 16 years, staying after Jim left the Leafs. He offered me the Central Scouting job in 1988 and I worked closely with him. He then became involved in officiating as part of his VP duties.
"There's a high trust level with Jim. He was very credible when he was managing the Maple Leafs because you respect Jim and you trust him. This is a great honor and one that he certainly deserves."
Cliff Fletcher was general manager of the Atlanta Flames and later the Calgary Flames during Gregory's tenure with the Maple Leafs. A decade later, he became GM of the Maple Leafs and was the architect of the exciting Toronto teams of the early 1990s.
"Jim came up with Toronto around the same time I was in the Canadiens organization," Fletcher said. "He's so multifaceted, he's been in everything. Jim Gregory has done so much for the league, various individuals and many former hockey players. It's people like Jim Gregory that make the NHL. He's admired and respected for the jobs he's done over his total career. He is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. When people had serious needs, Jim was there for them. He is one of the most underappreciated guys in the league.
"Central Scouting was born from the idea that teams thought it would be an effective cost-cutting measure to have a centralized operation with shared costs. They did such a thorough job that I looked at it differently, a checks-and-balance on my own scouting operations. When I got final ratings from Central Scouting that differed substantially from our organization, that's when I started asking questions. It's an excellent cross-checking tool. The concept has been very valuable to every team in the league and we used it extensively."
Mark Howe was a cocky young kid when his folks arranged for him to play for the Marlies in 1973, when they won another Memorial Cup under coach George Armstrong, the captain of Toronto's four Stanley Cup teams in the 1960s. Bonello was the GM. Gregory was too busy to get involved with the junior club? Or was he?
"I got called into Jim Gregory's office, the GM of the Maple Leafs, so, of course, I was nervous," Howe recalled. "I had quit school and was working at Maple Leaf Gardens, sweeping up. He gave me a lecture and told me better players than me had failed to make the NHL. He was teaching me a lesson in life. Now I see him around rinks and he always has something nice to say to me. Always a smile, always upbeat. He loves the atmosphere in a hockey rink. He's important in my life because he tried to help me when I was a youngster."
Armstrong said people can learn a lot about ambition and achievement from Gregory.
"Jim dedicated his life to hockey because he loves the game," Armstrong said. "He was more interested in hockey than in advancing himself and look where that got him. He's a fine person, a very honest person, and there's no one better, in my opinion. He managed the Maple Leafs as I was finishing playing and he had that team going pretty good before Ballard got disenchanted and let him go. Had they kept him, they would have done a lot better.
"I retired and scouted for a year before they asked me to coach. I said I'd give it a try but I didn't know if I'd like it. Jim encouraged me to do it and I ended up with the best team in Canada. We collected the best players and they took off."
Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Johnny Bower finished his career in 1970, the first year Gregory managed the Maple Leafs.
"I thought the world of Jim," Bower said. "He had a tough time with Mr. Ballard, who really gave it to him if we lost. Jim took it like the easygoing guy he is. He was very dedicated to his job and the players. I still think he was one of the best managers in the game. He could fit in very well with any modern club but he's happy and satisfied with what he is doing.
"The players knew that Jim was backing us all the way and he did a lot for us. He took our families out to dinner one night and gave all the wives a pin that my wife still has. With his wife, Rosalie, they raised a wonderful family. I have never heard anyone say a bad word about Jim Gregory and my wife thinks the same."