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A hard lesson from a hockey great's death

Had Tim Horton died during the era of the 24-hour news cycle, we would have known much sooner.

But he died in the middle of the night, at a time when the term multimedia meant you had one newspaper in the morning and one in the afternoon. So as I went through a normal school day, I didn't know.

Even worse, my brother didn't know.

Michael was a huge Tim Horton fan when feeling that way was about hockey, not coffee.

You had to be a real purist to appreciate Tim Horton in the two seasons he played for the Sabres. He wasn't flashy like Gil Perreault. He didn't smash people through the boards and then beat them up like Jim Schoenfeld. He didn't score goals in bunches like Rick Martin. He just did his job, quietly and consistently.

I don't remember ever asking Michael what it was about him, mostly because it didn't matter. My big brother loved him, and that was good enough for me.

We were nuts about the Sabres then. They were hardly ever on TV, so we would listen to Ted Darling call the games on the radio. One year, Michael set up a chalkboard/scoreboard in the basement. On game nights, he would draw a line down the middle, write SABRES on one side and the name of the opponent on the other. Then, as we listened to the game, he would continually update the score. It was low-tech ESPN.com for an audience of two.

But the games were almost always at night, and bedtime was always getting in the way of our hockey enjoyment, so we relied on the newspaper accounts the next day.

One Saturday, as we had done on many other weekend mornings, we retrieved the Courier-Express from the front door, spread it out on the living room carpet and began looking for the Sabres score from the night before.

I can't remember whether they won, but I remember that as we looked to see who had goals and who had assists, we saw Tim Horton had actually scored a goal. We gasped as if we had just read that Commander Tom was coming to our house for breakfast and then quickly shushed each other so that we wouldn't wake anyone up. And then we both looked again to see if it really were true.

What a morning.

That was a great time for sports heroes in Buffalo. O.J. Simpson was like a god. Bob McAdoo wasn't far behind. The Sabres were in their golden age.

Then we learned too young that athletes are just people. And people die.

I was in reading class in fourth grade just before dismissal when I heard other kids saying that someone had died. Then someone said, "Tim Horton," and I felt a terrible chill.

We all found out later that it was a car accident. He was on his way back to Buffalo from Toronto. He was speeding. And he was 44 years old, or as everyone was saying, "only 44 years old."

I raced home. I wanted to get there before Michael to tell him. But he was already there, and he already knew. My grandmother was sitting with him on the couch, hugging him and trying to console him as he sobbed.

As bad as I felt, I felt worse for him. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, but I couldn't. I was 9.

Michael clipped stories and columns from the newspaper about his death and got them laminated. They stayed on his bedroom wall for years. I bet he still has them in a box somewhere.

I'm sure neither one of us will ever forget how awful we felt on that awful day.

It was Feb. 21, 1974. Saturday was the 35th anniversary of Tim Horton's death. Some youthful innocence died with him.

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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