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Frank Mahovlich takes trip down memory lane

Big M recalls past times in Ottawa during weekend trip to Stanley Cup celebration

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

OTTAWA -- Frank Mahovlich is sitting in the warm Saturday glow of the lobby of the Fairmont Château Laurier Hotel, comfortable in a red and gold high-backed wood-framed chair.

The Big M, as he's been known for just about forever, exudes the gentlemanly class that is in every inch of his 6-foot-1 frame. Happy to pose for a photograph, the 79-year-old is smiling beneath a fashionable Austrian hat, wearing a fine wool overcoat, red scarf, dark jacket with his Order of Canada pin on the left lapel, red silk tie, cuffed grey trousers and highly polished black shoes. On his hockey-gnarled hands, he wears two Stanley Cup rings, one from the Montreal Canadiens on his left, the other from the Toronto Maple Leafs on his right.

If the legendary six-time Stanley Cup champion looks entirely at home in the lobby of this stately, century-old hotel, it's because he is. For more than 14 years, between his appointment to the Canadian Senate in 1998 until he took his retirement in 2013, Mahovlich lived here two nights a week with his wife, Marie, making the short walk three days each week to the Red Chamber a few rink-lengths down Wellington Street to the west.

[Related: 100 Greatest Players: Frank Mahovlich]

Wrapped in his chair, Mahovlich is delighted to reminisce, turn the clock back into his distant and recent past.

"I was here in the fall of 1957 with the Maple Leafs, not yet 20 years old, a rookie, in for an exhibition game," he said. "We'd play games in northern Ontario, then come down here by train through the fantastic autumn colors. I don't know if those train tracks even exist today.

"I started to walk around this lobby one day, then went down to the swimming pool. There was a man doing lengths, back and forth, so I watched him for a while until he got out. He was in good shape, a fairly big man with a moustache. My gosh, it was George Hees."

Mahovlich shakes his head at the memory, the scene still fresh in his mind 60 years later. Hees was a rising politician who would grow to have great influence in Canada, coming to elected power following a superb championship career in many sports and his distinguished war service in the Canadian army. On this 1957 day in a hotel swimming pool, he was larger than life to a fledgling NHL player.

The Big M would return to the Château Laurier countless times in the decades to come. Of Croatian descent, he vividly recalls meeting then-Yugoslavia President Marshal Josip Broz Tito in the hotel ballroom during Tito's 1971 visit to Canada.

"My brother, Peter, and I were invited to meet him," Mahovlich said of Tito, a leader who was unpopular with many in Yugoslavia, thus his visit to Canada was met by protests. "There was a lot of controversy about whether Peter and I should come. But we did, with heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo."

Frank and Peter Mahovlich, Chuvalo and many more would meet Tito and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau down the hallway from where we are now sitting, in the hotel's historic ballroom. It's the room where on Friday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had announced the Scotiabank 2017 NHL100 Classic, to be staged in Ottawa on Dec. 16.

The Big M would play 17-plus Hall of Fame-bound NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Canadiens between 1957-74, winning the Stanley Cup four times with the Maple Leafs, and twice more with the Canadiens. He had 1,103 points (533 goals, 570 assists) in 1,181 games. He retired from the game in 1978, following four seasons in the World Hockey Association, and 20 years later was appointed to Canada's Senate, the Upper House of Canada's Parliament.

Sitting three days a week, Mahovlich and Marie would come into Ottawa and stay two nights at the Château Laurier.

"This is a beautiful place, like the old Royal York Hotel in Toronto," he said, looking up at the high ceilings, unusual angles and so much wood in this old-world lobby. "The memories my wife and I have here … so many people we've met."

The couple stayed in Room 500, a suite hand-picked by Marie, Mahovlich said, "because it overlooks the Parliament Buildings and has a beautiful view of the Ottawa River. Marie picked out the finest room she could find. She had a desk where she could write all her letters and almost see me walking into the Senate from out the window."

When Frank and Marie come to Ottawa now, the hotel sets aside Room 500 for them. But this week, here alone for four days of Stanley Cup celebrations on the trophy's 125th birthday, Mahovlich said he is on the fourth floor, "because it's convenient and it's where I can have breakfast."

The Big M and I step out of the hotel just before 9 a.m., behind his former Maple Leafs teammate Dave Keon and a small group of NHL executives and staff, and we have fallen 50 or so paces back to take a leisurely, see-your-breath walk past the Senate, on the right. We'll take in the view of the Parliament Buildings and then turn left across Wellington, down Elgin Street, a short stroll to the Stanley Cup monument groundbreaking on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall at which Mahovlich and Keon will be honored guests.

Mahovlich will be recognized on the nearly empty sidewalk as we cross the bridge over the Rideau Canal, long shadows falling ahead of us with an early morning sun at our backs, and he'll stop to carefully sign a fan's puck, continuing on only after he says thank you to the man for asking.

During our walk, Mahovlich will speak of his career, of the special pride he takes in having assisted on milestone NHL goals of two late legends, close friends both: Gordie Howe's 700th goal, with Detroit, and Jean Béliveau's 500th, with Montreal. He will talk of the many great friends he has made in the game, cherishing the ones still here, terribly missing those who are gone.

Mahovlich chuckles about his so-called retirement: "I'm busy but I can't tell you what I'm doing … I'm kind of retired. I haven't settled down. I'm here and there, everywhere."

He played in alumni games for a time, finally giving them up about 15 years ago when he was skating on a Toronto rink and his knee gave out. He's had surgery on both knees and is resisting, for now, suggestions that he should have one replaced.

We get to talking about the Maple Leafs' upset win against the Canadiens in the 1967 Stanley Cup Final, and I ask him whether he still needles his Montreal friends about that one.

"Fifty years since Toronto's last win, the year of Expo 67," he said. "The Canadiens were determined they were going to win but we snuck in there, didn't we? No, my Montreal friends and I prefer to talk about the Canadiens' Stanley Cup victories in 1971 and 1973. Those were great years too."

Reunited with his brother, Peter, a long-ago teammate with Detroit, Mahovlich scored his 500th NHL goal with the Canadiens on March 21, 1973.

"I had some wonderful experiences with the Canadiens," he said. "I have nothing but good things to say about (late general manager) Sammy Pollock and the Molsons and the Bronfmans (team owners during his day). They treated me so well and even had my parents in Molson family seats right behind the bench when they honored me for my 500th goal."

In October, a statue of Mahovlich will be added to the Maple Leafs' Legends Row at Air Canada Centre. It will join the 10 there now, alongside those of Charlie Conacher, Wendel Clark and his dear friend Red Kelly.

"I'm especially happy that I'm going to be there with Red," he said. "We won four Stanley Cups together in Toronto and we've been friends ever since. We've golfed together at St. Andrew's in Scotland and with Jack Nicklaus at the Canadian Open. To be on Legends Row with Red is going to be a tremendous thrill."

By now we're at the windswept corner of Sparks and Elgin streets, and if Mahovlich is chilled during this frosty Stanley Cup monument groundbreaking he doesn't look it. He poses with everyone who asks for a photo, autographs everything offered for his signature, and he takes a ceremonial faceoff against his old friend Keon.

It is 75 minutes after we left the hotel that we're headed back, retracing our steps along Wellington. On this walk, he again fondly recalls his years as a senator, fiercely proud of the work he did in committees, remembering in detail an eye-opening, heart-crushing trip to Africa.

"There's not enough said about the work the Senate does," Mahovlich says. "I miss it, very much."

He walks into the Château Laurier one last time on this visit, soon headed to the airport for his flight back to Toronto. The Big M loosens his scarf and turns a slow, full circle, taking a deep breath. He is home again, warmed by the memories of this hotel lobby and the richness of his life in hockey and beyond the game he still loves.

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