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Ulmer Chats with Hall-Bound Jim Gregory

Thursday, 08.11.2007 / 4:06 PM / Features
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
Former Maple Leafs General Manager Jim Gregory will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame’s builder’s category, November 12. Gregory managed the Leafs from 1969-1979 before going to work for the NHL as director of Central Scouting. He has chaired the Hockey Hall of Fame’s induction committee since 1998. We asked him about getting the word, Punch Imlach and the greatest Maple Leaf ever.

Ulmer
: You have often told people they were being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Who called you and what was it like?

Jim Gregory: I was on the road, driving home from my hometown of Dunnville, Ontario, when (HHOF CEO) Bill Hay and Pat Quinn phoned me. I was dumfounded and asking myself ‘what’s Bill Hay phoning me about?’ He said ‘I’ve got good news for you.’ I was paid back for all those other guys I called.

Ulmer: What were some of the more remarkable reactions you got from players when you called to tell them they would be inducted in the Hall of Fame?

Jim Gregory: I was reminded just the other night in New York. Pat Lafontaine told me he was driving over a bridge when I reached him and he said ‘I almost went over the side of the road.’ Everybody has the same reaction. There are some fellows you would say were automatic entries into the Hall but they still seem very surprised when they get the call.

Ulmer: So Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were surprised?

Jim Gregory: I wasn’t fortunate enough to talk to Mr. Gretzky or Mr. Lemieux but they were both surprised, I was told.

Ulmer: You were a friend of Leafs great Joe Primeau, a former Leafs coach and a member of the Leafs’ great Kid Line. What was that like?

Jim Gregory: I met Joe Primeau and I can safely say we became good friends, through Father David Bauer. When I was at St. Mike’s, Joe Primeau often came and would sit in on hockey meetings and give his opinion and advice. It was unbelievable. John McLellan came to be coaching the Leafs when I was coaching at St. Mike’s. Joe Primeau had coached Johnny and he had a real interest in Johnny doing well. He got in touch with us often and would tell us things that he thought would work. It became a ritual. John McLellan and I went to Joe Primeau’s house once a month and would sit with him and have a supper meeting.

Ulmer: You were a longtime employee of Punch Imlach. What was that like?

Jim Gregory: When Punch came, I was working for the juniors. He didn’t have a lot of time for the juniors but through Bob Davidson, we would get our directions. In 1959-60, Stafford Smythe hired me on to work at Maple Leaf Gardens.  I sat right across the office from Punch. He was different from me but both of us had a passion for hockey. I spent a lot of time learning a lot of things from Punch. We would often get in debates but that’s healthy. He had all the time in the world for anyone who was interested in hockey.

Ulmer: You would replace him in 1969. Was that difficult?

Jim Gregory:  His ideas and ways were very successful. I was fortunate to be around when the Leafs won all those Stanley Cups from 1960-67.  Whoever went there would have had the same problem. He was a tough act to follow.

Ulmer: Do you pride yourself as being someone who can get along with anybody?

Jim Gregory:  I try to have that philosophy. You fight with a lot of people but I was told a long time ago by a good friend, you can get in all the debates and arguments you want with fellow workers and employees. As long as you treat them with respect and have a cup of coffee with them afterward, that’s fine.

Ulmer: When did you first realize there was talent to be mined in Europe?

Jim Gregory: I had a friend who had gone to Europe on business and he told me. Some people are saying the Leafs were the first ones finding players there but we weren’t. The New York Rangers were recruiting in the mid 1950s. They were ahead of everyone. I am proud of the fact that we were in the early group of teams that got players. In our first try at Europe, we ended up with Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming. I had sent Jerry McNamara to scout Inge. He phoned me, all excited: ‘you should see this defenceman playing with Hammarstrom.’

Ulmer: Were there other Swedish stars to be had?

Jim Gregory: If we had shown better foresight. We had Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg on our list as well. We did have an opportunity after they came here and were looking for a place to play.

Ulmer: Did you lose them because Harold Ballard didn’t want to spend enough?

Jim Gregory:  We’ll just leave it that we didn’t get involved enough.

Ulmer: What was it like to work for Harold Ballard?

Jim Gregory: I ended up working for Harold for four years. When you’re working for anybody, you’re going to have times when you come into difficulty. Harold had some idiosyncrasies, as people know. You had to deal with them and I tried to deal with them as best I could.

Ulmer: Who was the greatest Leaf?

Jim Gregory: If I said Dave Keon was the best player ever, no one would ever argue. But he would be mad at me because he thinks Ted Kennedy is the best player. Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, what about them?  How could you get someone who treated me better than Tiger Williams or Mike Palmateer or Tim Horton?  To try to pick one person is just impossible.

Ulmer: A Hall of Fame career as a builder. Things seemed to have worked out well for you after you failed as a player.

Jim Gregory: I was a young guy who tried to be a hockey player and wasn’t able to. For my life to go the way it did, I’ve lived a dream. I mean Roger Neilson, I could talk for two days about Roger Neilson. (Former Leafs coach) John McLellan, (former Leaf) Bob Davidson. It’s unbelievable that I’ve been so fortunate.

I used to get up in the morning and say to myself: ‘you are one lucky so and so. Don’t mess it up.’
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