Gus Mortson, the man they called “Old Hardrock” (as much for his playing style as for his origins in Northern Ontario mining country) was known as one of the toughest players ever to suit up for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Growing up in Ontario’s north, a young man had literally only two choices: work in the mines or play hockey. Gus worked at the game and at a young age it was obvious his future was on the ice and not far below it.
“Old Hardrock” From Ontario’s North
Mortson began his playing career in Kirkland Lake, playing in the Gold Belt Senior Hockey League at age 17 in the 1942-43 season. The following year he joined the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the OHA Junior A league. He was loaned to the Oshawa Generals for the playoffs that season and won the Memorial Cup. The very next season Mortson led St. Mike’s to their very own Memorial Cup.
The “Gold Dust Twins”
Mortson’s great play that season guaranteed a professional career, and he started out with Tulsa of the United States Hockey League in 1945-46. After one season there, he was promoted to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs, where he was teamed with 19-year-old Jim Thomson, forming a defence duo that became known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” They would be a mainstay on the Toronto defence for the next six seasons.
Gus earned his only NHL All-star nomination in 1949-50, when he was named to the league’s first team. However, he played in nine consecutive All-star games, both as a member of the Leafs in their Stanley Cup years, and being named to the squad that played the previous spring’s Cup winners.
He won four Stanley Cups with Toronto, and it’s safe to say he was more than a key contributor to the team. Not only did his toughness keep opponents honest in front of goalie Turk Broda, but he was as good defensively as any rearguard who played in that era.
Gus Mortson’s Trade to Chicago and the Union
After the 1951-52 season, Mortson was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks by Toronto as the centrepiece in a deal that brought Hawks’ goalie Harry Lumley to the Leafs. Gus spent six more seasons with the Blackhawks, never wavering from the rough-and-tumble style that made him successful.
Near the end of his Chicago tenure in 1957, Mortson became involved in the aborted formation of a players association with Ted Lindsay, Doug Harvey and others. It was at that time that Conn Smythe, one of the NHL club owners who was most vehemently opposed to a players union, said that Mortson would never work in management or coaching for any NHL organization after his career. That statement, sadly, came true.
Gus Mortson vs “The Major”
One of the more memorable examples of the animosity Mortson held for Smythe (who was known as “The Major”) took place on November 2, 1957 during a game between Toronto and Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens. This was during the height of the hoopla surrounding the attempt at formation of the union.
During the third period of the game, Mortson drew a holding penalty and was sent to the sin bin to serve his two minutes. While in the penalty box, Gus voiced his displeasure with referee Gaye Stewart, himself a former player.
Seated in his box seats right behind the penalty box was Conn Smythe. Smythe leaned into the penalty box and asked Mortson “Why don’t you tell Lewis and Mound about it?” Lewis and Mound were the two New York lawyers who were assisting the players in forming their association.
Mortson turned around and shook his fist at the Toronto owner. When Smythe leapt to his feet, Gus stood as well and, as Red Burnett reported in the Toronto Star, “executed a snappy military salute and then thumbed his nose at the Gardens head.”
The pair apparently met after the game but no peace was made. Mortson described the meeting thusly:
“We had a nice friendly conversation: covered 10 years in two minutes.”
At the beginning of the 1958-59 season, Gus was sent to the Detroit Red Wings in a straight cash deal. He lasted 36 games with the Wings before being claimed off waivers by the AHL Buffalo Bisons, a farm team of the New York Rangers. He played the rest of that season and all the next with Buffalo before retiring from the professional playing ranks.
Gus Mortson’s Post-NHL Days
After sitting out the 1960-61 season, Mortson spent a year coaching the Dixie Beehives of the Metro Toronto Junior B league. He went back to playing, now in senior hockey for the Chatham Maroons in 1962-63. He made a brief return to pro hockey for three games in 1964-65 when he agreed to help out the Buffalo Bisons once again during a severe player shortage the team was undergoing.
After three more seasons with Oakville in Senior A hockey, Gus hung up the blades for good and returned to Northern Ontario.
Gus Mortson played 12-and-a-half NHL seasons. Never a great scorer, like almost every NHL defender of that era, he did score 7 goals in the 1947-48 season. He also led the NHL in penalty minutes four times, including a career-high 147 in 1956-57. Not only was he known as a tough customer, but he was also a highly regarded team-mate.
Mortson passed away two years ago in Timmins, Ontario, not far from his home town of New Liskeard. He was 90 years old.
“Old Hardrock” will be missed.
This article was originally published in August, 2015.