The first professional athlete I ever met lived just down the road. Well, not just down the road, but pretty close.
I was born in 1953 and grew up a huge Toronto Maple Leaf fan, despite the presence of my Dad and two older brothers who were passionate fans of the Montreal Canadiens.
Like tens of thousands of other Canadian kids at the time, my favorite player (and Leaf ) of all time was then, and still is, Dave Keon, who joined the Leafs in the fall of 1960 when I was turning 7 years of age. Keon, over the years, became someone special to follow because of the way he played- a small guy with speed, a big heart, superb skill, balance and brains.
But a different “type” of favorite was a virtual hometown boy by the name of Marc Reaume.
I was raised outside of Windsor, in Essex County, in a very small community called River Canard. (In French, and this was primarily a French-speaking community, it was “Riviere-Aux-Canards”. My friends from the “big city” of Windsor used to mockingly call it Duck River.) We were located between two other small towns, Amherstburg and LaSalle. Marc Reaume lived just minutes away in Lasalle.
Reaume had played locally for Assumption High School in Windsor, a school I would attend years later. He played for Fr. Ron Cullen, a priest and local coaching legend in the Windsor area who is in the Canadian Baseball Hall-of-Fame, and rightly so. I myself played baseball for Fr. Cullen for 5 years. He was a brilliant teacher of fundamentals, a tough but caring man who would bench a player for the tiniest of mental mistakes. To this day I have fond memories of playing for him.
Interestingly, I remember that in later years Reaume, in a magazine article, credited Cullen with being the coach who taught him the fundamentals required to play the game at the professional level.
Reaume was signed by the Leafs in the mid 1950’s and played off and on for Billy Reay and then Punch Imlach in the late 1950’s. He was a strong skater and good all-around defenseman. But in those days of the 6-team NHL, the Leafs had Tim Horton, Allen Stanley, Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer as their four-man blueline. Most teams used only four defensemen in those days. Reaume, like Al Arbour, Kent Douglas and Larry Hillman who came after him, was often a 5th wheel.
The 1959-'60 season was a significant one for Punch Imlach, the General Manager of the Leafs. The previous season, with Imlach in control as General Manager and Coach, the Leafs lost in the finals to the Canadiens. They were improving quickly, but not quite ready to beat Montreal. Imlach was building a strong mix of solid veterans like Bower, Stanley and captain George Armstrong, with kids like Carl Brewer, Bobby Baun, Dickie Duff emerging as strong players and Bob Nevin and Dave Keon set to arrive the next season.
Montreal was on its way to winning its 5th Stanley Cup in a row and Imlach felt the Leafs needed a big center to shut down Jean Beliveau in Montreal.
Earlier that 1959-'60 season, the Red Wings had tried to trade Red Kelly, their Norris Trophy winning defenseman, to New York. He refused to report to the Rangers, and he was kind of in limbo until Imlach arranged to trade for him and convinced him to come to Toronto. In return, the Leafs gave up Marc Reaume.
In the summer of 1960, a few months after the trade had been completed, my Dad surprised me by offering to take me to actually meet Reaume. My Dad worked in the area and likely knew the family a bit.
It was only about a 10 minute drive, if that. I was nervous and so excited to meet an NHL player. Marc personalized an autographed picture for me and shook my hand and was very friendly to an awe-struck young boy. I was on cloud nine.
I always held on to that autograph, and followed Marc’s career. He only played sporadically for the Red Wings after that first season. He ended up in the Montreal system and played a few games under Toe Blake in Montreal, but spent most of the rest of his career in the minor leagues. He was voted best defenseman in the old Central Hockey League when it was a top development league in the late 1960’s and fed a lot of players to the NHL, but Reaume never got another chance in the big leagues again until the second wave of expansion in 1970-’71. He played the first half of the season with the Vancouver Canucks, but was sent down to the minors again. His career ended within a year, when he was driving to a game and suffered severe injuries in a car accident. He recovered, but never fully, and could not continue with his career.
It was a sudden and sad end to a solid pro career. He may have been the only player ever to play for each of the three Canadian teams-Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
It has always troubled me when people talk about the Kelly trade as lopsided in favor of the Leafs (it obviously was, in terms of outcome, as Kelly helped the Leafs win 4 Stanley Cups before retiring in 1967) or mention Reaume only as the answer to a trivia question. I looked up to Marc Reaume because he was from my area and not just that, he was a quiet, classy guy who didn’t have a huge ego and was well-regarded in the game and his local community. He just happened to be the player that went the other way once the Wings were determined to get rid of Kelly, when Kelly had a falling out with his General Manager, Jack Adams.
Marc Reaume was always, to me, the local guy who truly “did good”. He was the first real pro—in every sense—I ever met.