John Tonelli and I always got along although I didn’t know him as well as some of the other NHLers. When the New York islanders traded him to Calgary in 1986 we rushed to Long Island to cover the story for Hockey Night in Canada. When our crew arrived at the Nassau County Coliseum we were told that Tonelli was very upset with the deal and that he was not talking to the media, not giving interviews to anyone.
I asked the PR person for the Islanders to go to John and plead with him to make an exception, since we’d some all the way from Toronto. She returned and said, “He’ said all right, he’ll do it for you, Mr. McFarlane.”
John gave me an excellent interview, then packed and left for Calgary.
John had a long and productive career in hockey, beginning in junior with the Toronto Marlboros where he scored 49 goals in his final junior season. In the NHL he played in over 1,000 games and scored 325 goals. He was the MVP of the 1984 Canada Cup and played on four Stanley Cup winning teams–all with the Islanders.
We sat over coffee on Long Island one day and he reminisced about his early days in the game:
BM: Tell me about your days in junior hockey.
JT: Near the end of my second season in junior hockey with the Marlies, just before I turned eighteen, I retained an agent named Gus Badali. He had been talking to Houston of the WHA, because Houston wanted me. So it looked like the following season I would be turning pro and playing with the Houston Aeros.
But at that time, at the start of the junior season, the Marlies came out with a new contract that bound some players for three years, plus an option year, with the junior club.
Reluctantly, and later to my regret, I had signed such a contract at the beginning of the year–just before I turned eighteen. I didn’t know then that I had a chance to play pro with Houston–which was a great opportunity. So instead of playing any more hockey under the Marlie contract, once I turned eighteen I repudiated it. I wanted it revoked. I went to Marlie management, meaning Frank Bonello. I tried to convince him I should be allowed to leave the Marlies after that season.
He said, “No way! You are here for four years. And you are here for another two years after that.”
We were trying to settle with them but it was no go. They wanted an enormous amount, just fantastic. So we ended up in court. I didn’t play another game in junior after my eighteenth birthday. So I missed all the playoffs and the team went on to win the Memorial Cup that year. That made me happy because if they hadn’t won they could have blamed it on me.
BM: But you missed the thrill of being part of it.
JT: Oh, yeah. That would have been a thrill, too.
BM: That’s unfortunate. You only get that one chance.
JT: Well, that’s life. So we went to court.
BM: In Toronto?
JT: Yeah, in Toronto. We were in court for a full week. I couldn’t believe that something like this was happening. They were trying to stop me from playing professional hockey, something I always wanted to do.
BM: Was it that case that makes hockey people nervous about attempting to re‑install the twenty year old draft because they know that guys 18 can sue them and claim to be adults and do what they want?
JT: It might be. I know my case was the first one.
BM: Ken Linesmen had a similar case after that?
JT: Yeah, right after that. My case set a precedent that you can’t stop a guy from earning a living once he is eighteen.
BM: Let’s suppose that you could earn 100 grand a year for turning pro but they force you to play junior. Then you break a leg and can never play again. You are out that 100 grand, your future in pro hockey and everything else is gone.
JT: That’s right. As a junior I was getting $15 dollars a week plus room and board. They paid my room and board. Now the juniors get like $50 a week.
BM: That surprises me, John. When I played in that league, and I wasn’t nearly the player you are, I got $50 a week plus room and board. And that was 30, 35 years ago. That’s incredible.
JT: My second year in junior I went in and asked for a raise, just some extra money. No way, they said. The mistake I made, I should have stayed home. I should have stayed in Milton and travelled back and forth. Then I would have made $60.
BM: I thought they were slipping money under the table to the juniors?
JT: I believe they did. To some of the players. Not to me.
BM: But you were one of the top players. You’d think that you would have been well looked after.
JT: It is like professional hockey in the junior ranks. The managers all want to be big wheels, they want to make trades and deals.
BM: What was it like in Houston the first year?
JT: Houston was great. Fantastic. I had trouble at the beginning. I didn’t have that much confidence so they switched me around a lot.. As soon as I started to play with Terry Ruskowski and Don Larway literally, things began to roll. My first shift, I played center between Gordie Howe and Mark Howe. We came back to the bench after one minute on the ice. Mark Howe was on my left and Gordie was on my right. I’m eighteen years old and very nervous. Suddenly Gordie leans toward me and wipes his dripping nose all over my sweater. I did not say one word. I just kept looking at the play. But looking back on it, I always have to laugh. It was so…so Gordie Howe. His snot all over my sleeve.
BM: He must have been fun to play with in that era because he was really enjoying himself then, wasn’t he?
JT: Well, he was great. Always funny. Always cracking jokes.
BM: He was often way with us on the telecasts. We would be taping an interview at rinkside during the pre-game warmup and he would skate by and flip snow and slush off the blade of his stick all over us, all over those nice blue jackets we wore.
JT: What a competitor. On the golf course and even on the tennis course. The team had a tennis tournament one day. I don’t even think he had ever picked up a tennis racket in his life. He got out there and he played a great game. At the rink, we used to have some battles in practice. It would be Ruskowski, Larway and myself against Gordie and his son Mark and Rich Preston. When we would scrimmage it would be like a real game each time.
Gordie taught me how to keep my head up. Oh, he gave me a nice elbow in practice one day. I had to go sit down un til the cobwebs cleared. He practically knocked me out. Oh, he could do it.
BM: I think it’s just amazing that he could play at age 52. That is my age. I struggle around with the oldtimers on Sunday mornings. After a while you get the arthritis and the sore back and you can’t stretch like you used to and you’re slower than a turtle in quicksand. I think of him playing in that NHL with all those kids, and it’s simply incredible.
JT: I remember my first training camp. It was muggy and we were all really feeling the heat and the humidity. I was out on the ice, starting to skate around. The whistle goes and we start picking up speed. Howe just zooms by me and says, “Hurry up, kid. Get going.”
BM: What about the Stanley Cup? Do you have any stories about the Cup?
JT: The only thing that I could say is that my brother and I used to play for the Stanley Cup in our basement. There used to be an old ashtray down there. It was about three feet high and silver‑topped, and to me it was just like the Stanley Cup. I used to carry it around the room. I was amazed to see how much it resembled the real Stanley Cup.
BM: In your mind it was the real Stanley Cup.