When I arrived in the “big smoke” (Toronto) to pursue my academic studies in the fall of 1972 at the University of Toronto, I was like thousands of young high school graduates before me: I was alone in the big city, on my own, for the first time.
Beyond the idea of possibly earning a degree, I was excited by the social possibilities, but also thrilled to be living near the home of my cherished Maple Leafs- Maple Leaf Gardens itself. It was a 15-minute walk from my dormitory door. Now, while I loved hockey and was a devout Leaf fan, I knew nothing about university hockey.
But one late fall night, I went to a University of Toronto Varsity Blues game on a Friday evening at the old Varsity Arena—probably as a lark, killing time before the traditional Friday night “pub” would liven things up.
By the end of the season, I got there so early for games I was sitting in the first- row seats right behind the Varsity Blues bench. I learned about the nuances of the game by watching Watt. He was a teacher, a motivator, acerbic with the players at times, demanding but often hilariously funny.
The Blues eventually went on to play St. Mary’s for the Canadian championship at Varsity. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were 5,000 people crammed into the building for that game in March of 1973. I don’t know how “big” college/university hockey is now, but it was something back then for sure.
It’s funny the things you recall. Even though it’s now about 40 years ago, I remember names from that team—at least a few. Bruce Durno and Gary Inness were the goalies (I think Dave Tataryn, a well-known former Junior player, had been the Blues’ goalie prior to them). Warren Anderson was a strong-skating defenseman who played later on the 1980 Canadian Olympic team at Lake Placid. (He might have been on the ’84 Olympic squad, too, I’m not sure.)
Mike Keenan, the future NHL coach, was a 5th year student (in his first year at U of T, after playing, if I remember correctly, for four seasons of U.S. college hockey). Blues center Bob Munro was one of the fastest and best skaters I’ve ever seen, a guy who could roof the puck seemingly at will on breakaways, almost always able to place the puck over the goalies’ shoulder but just under the cross bar, at high speed.
Gord Davies was the captain and an excellent penalty killer. Kent Rhunke was a talented winger who played a few games later for the NHL’s Boston Bruins.
But the straw that stirred the drink in those days was Watt, an outstanding coach at that level.
I often wondered why a guy like that was coaching there, and not at some “higher” level. But he had a teaching job at the university, and probably had a very satisfying career working with elite student-athletes.
I had the opportunity to meet Watt on a couple of occasions in later years. In 1976, I was hosting a local cable television show, and wanted to do something on an issue facing many good young Canadian student-athletes: Should they stay in Canada and play junior hockey, or look south for a scholarship to attend a U.S. school? (That very issue is still so relevant today—so much so that U.S. hockey has hired the former head of the NHL Players Association to promote the college game in America.)
For the show, I invited Watt, Dave Draper, who had excellent credentials at the time in Junior hockey (and I believe is the uncle of longtime Red Wing star Kris Draper), along with a gentleman who was the owner of the Dixie Beehives of the then-popular and successful Junior B hockey team. I also invited a player who had spent time in both Junior and Canadian college hockey, whose name I can’t recall.
It was an excellent debate and discussion, and touched on the many pros and cons of both choices. It’s a difficult decision that still faces Canadian student-athletes today, with proponents on both sides of the issue.
I remember also interviewing Watt on my radio show at the time, probably in the spring of 1977. We went for a drink after the show, and I asked him why he stayed at U of T. I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t “good enough” to coach in the pros.
He indicated he loved the university setting, but I walked away with the sense that maybe things would change, some day, if the right professional job offer ever came along. That said, since he wasn’t the typical ex- pro player, I wondered if the opportunity would ever come.
I followed Watt’s career from a distance, and was really pleased when he accepted an assistant coaching job in the NHL, and earned his first gig as a head coach with the Winnipeg Jets in the early ‘80s. He was also an assistant coach with the 1980 Canadian Olympic team (using only amateurs and college players) that showed fairly well in Lake Placid, finishing 6th , but their efforts were overshadowed by the stunning gold-medal upset pulled off by the American team—also made up of college kids.
Watt had early success with the NHL Jets, and won Coach of the Year for leading a big Jets turnaround, but soon faced the same executioner most coaches inevitably do. He then had a shot at the Canucks head coaching job, but the team was not strong at the time and again he was let go.
He was an assistant with the Calgary Flames when they won the Cup in 1989, and then took on the top job with the Leafs for a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s. The Leafs were a team without a real identity at the time, and Watt never quite seemed to capture the team’s psyche, though I’ve heard some former players speak highly of him as a great teacher and coach.
Watt stayed in the Leaf organization for years, coaching in the AHL, then coached in Major Junior for a time, before taking various NHL scouting positions in more recent yeas.
Tom was always regarded as a real hockey guy, a true teacher. While he didn’t quite have the success some have had as a head coach, he was an excellent hockey man.
Though he won a Cup in the NHL and coached at the Olympics, I’ll always remember him best from my perch just behind him as he paced the bench leading the Varsity Blues to that Canadian university championship in the spring of 1973.