THE INTERVIEW: Ron Ellis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE INTERVIEW December 2018
Hockey Legend Ron Ellis

For 15 seasons, Ron Ellis of the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of the NHL’s most respected two-way players and one of the game’s greatest gentlemen. But as much as his hockey resume speaks volumes, it’s his work with the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) that may end up being his legacy. Ellis, 73, of Lindsay, Ont., was a prolific scorer with the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros, and helped them capture the 1964 Memorial Cup. Along with grizzled veterans including George Armstrong, Johnny Bower, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk, the right winger was a member of the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup winning team in 1967. And he was a key member of Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series.

Photo: Hockey Hall Of Fame

Today, Ellis is program director of the HHOF’s development association and fiercely proud of the hall’s education program. His career spanned the days of the NHL’s Original Six through expansion, and into the Wayne Gretzky era, and he’s adamant about preserving hockey heritage in Canada. Promoting the education program, Ellis is able to assist youngsters in learning about the game’s history and what it means to the Canadian fabric. Ellis’s role with the HHOF sees him come full circle in the hockey world. Wearing his familiar No. 6 for most of his career, he recorded nine straight 20-goal seasons for Toronto between 1966 and 1975. He retired in 1975, returned to play for Canada at the 1977 World Championship, rejoined the Leafs and then retired for good after the 1980-81 season with 332 goals and 308 assists over 1,034 career NHL games. Despite a serious neck injury suffered in Game One of the Summit Series at the Montreal Forum, Ellis played a strong checking role in all eight games of the series. Few know that Ellis had to overcome serious challenges even before he laced on his skates. He was born with a club foot, and later battled a speech impediment. After hockey and disappointments in the business world, he lived with severe depression. Today, he is a speaker on the importance of diagnosing and treating clinical depression. “Ronnie has always done more for other people than he ever does for himself,” said Ellis’s former Leafs teammate and Summit Series hero Paul Henderson. “He’s got such a tender heart for people. He’s one of the finest individuals you’ll ever meet in your life.” Here’s THE INTERVIEW with Ron Ellis.

JEFFREY REED, EDITOR, LONDONONTARIOSPORTS.COM: Ron, your career has come full circle in that your name is now synonymous with the community outreach efforts of the Hockey Hall of Fame. What keeps you busy day-to-day with your current role?
RON ELLIS: After 20 years full-time with the Hall, when I was part of a management team, I’m just starting to cut back a little bit. So I’m doing a little bit of contract work with the Hall now, and have the title, Program Director of the Development Association. But I still try to help them wherever I can.
REED: Your current role is important, in that we need to educate today’s youth about our history – not just Connor McDavid but also Gordie Howe. And the Hall is an amazing visual-oriented venue for kids.
ELLIS: It’s important to educate our youth about hockey history, and it’s also important that when students visit the HHOF, they really do enjoy their visits. The HHOF is a beautiful facility. According to all of the other halls of fame for major sports, we are No. 1. And we are very proud of our school program. School boards can bring their students to the hall, and can use our education program which, for example, helps students look at both history and geography.
REED: Ron, let’s talk about the current Toronto Maple Leafs team. There is so much promise – so many talented young players. Is this the start of something special? Can this team end the Stanley Cup drought?

Ron Ellis

ELLIS: There is a different buzz this year, for sure. We are finally looking at a team that can be a contender for a very long time. It’s a playoff team. We haven’t been able to say that for many years. And as you know, Jeff, making the playoffs is the key. Over the past number of years, the top eight seeded teams have gone right to the Stanley Cup final. And now the Maple Leafs are a playoff team.
REED: Can they win the Stanley Cup this year?
ELLIS: I don’t know if they’re a Stanley Cup team yet. That remains to be seen. So much has to work out to make that happen. You need to enter the playoffs with momentum. You must be healthy. There are so many factors. And you’re playing four rounds now. It’s not like it was in 1967 when we only had to play two rounds. Today, the playoffs are like another season. It would be wonderful if the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup! But all we know is that they are a playoff team and a contender. And that’s exciting. They’re an exciting team to watch. But we can’t score seven goals every night. And we need to cut back on goals against. I am sure coach Babcock will do something about that.

“We are finally looking at a team that can be a contender for a very long time.”  Ron Ellis on the current Toronto Maple Leafs

REED: Let’s talk about when you broke into the NHL. First, I was not aware until recently that you were born with a club foot. I have club feet. We’ve both excelled in sports, obviously your career much more prominent than mine. How did you overcome your physical disability?
ELLIS: You’re right, it was something I had to overcome. When I was quite young, my mother and I made the visits to Sick Kids Hospital here in Toronto. I wore a brace on my foot, and they’d crank it back in those days.
REED: I wore a brace too and I remember my hospital visits.
ELLIS: Probably until I was six years old I wore it. The main thing was I didn’t have the flexibility in my left ankle.
REED: Same.
ELLIS: But I worked around it.
REED: You adjust.
ELLIS: I developed a style of skating – straight away. I had the speed. If I couldn’t skate, then I might as well have stayed home. But I could cut into the net much better from the right than the left. I would have much rather played on my wrong wing. I was much stronger playing the right side. So I kept (information about the foot) quiet and worked through it. That’s what you do. It was just something you overcome. And there have been other people that have done that in other sports.

REED: Troy Aikman and Mia Hamm included. Ron, you went from the Toronto Marlies junior squad straight to the NHL with the Leafs, and stayed in the same building, Maple Leaf Gardens. But without moving from the centre position to right wing, you would not have been given a chance, and would have been sent to the American Hockey League. Who knows what would have happened after that? We may not be speaking today.
ELLIS:  That’s right, probably would have gone to the American Hockey League, or I would have taken a scholarship to a schools in the U.S. I was speaking with schools at the time, and I did not want to play in the minors. So I probably would have gone back to school to get a degree, and if another opportunity to play hockey came along, fine. If not, I would have been fine with that, too. But you are right, when I came to the Leafs, they had won three straight Stanley Cups and they weren’t about to change the team.

“They’re an exciting team to watch. But we can’t score seven goals every night. And we need to cut back on goals against. I am sure coach Babcock will do something about that.” – Ron Ellis on the current Toronto Maple Leafs

REED: With six teams and a stronger allegiance to veterans, there were very few opportunities to play in the NHL back then.
ELLIS: Correct. When I joined the Leafs in 1964-65, they were stacked with centre men like Red Kelly, Dave Keon, Bob Pulford and Billy Harris. During my last year of junior with the Marlies, it was my coach Jim Gregory, who suggested that I move to right wing. My first reaction was, no, I’m a centre! He just said, ‘Ron, take a look at who is playing centre!’  And I understood what he was saying. So I moved to the right side, and we won the 1964 Memorial Cup. I led the team in goals. And when I came to Toronto, I got my chance to play.
REED: One of the great things about your NHL career was how it connected with generations. You think of Stan Musial’s big-league baseball career which spanned from 1941 to 1963. You played during the Original Six era, and ended your career during the 1980-81 season. You played with Allan Stanley and Borje Salming. That is a very cool career span.
ELLIS: It was, and I’m very grateful for that, to be able to play in that Original Six league. It was a real privilege to be part of 120 players at the time. I played with the Hortons, Armstrongs, Keons – right down the list. Stanley, and Johnny Bower. Ten players from the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup team in 1967 are in the Hall of Fame. That was a wonderful bunch of guys with a lot of class and a lot of character. And with expansion in 1967, a number of those guys were towards the end of their careers. Some retired and some were picked up by expansion teams. All of a sudden it’s me and Keon left. And then eventually, Dave went to World Hockey Association, so I was the last guy from the ’67 team, and now I’m playing with Salming, (Darryl) Sittler, (Lanny) MacDonald, (Ian) Turnbull and (Mike) Palmateer. So yes, there is no question I played during two eras, and I am very thankful for that.

REED: You were an important part of another historic hockey club – the Team of the Century, Team Canada 1972. Celebrating the Summit Series win has become a generational thing. It will never be forgotten. Dads have passed it onto their son.
ELLIS:  Right, and grandfathers are passing it onto their grandsons.

“It was a real privilege to be part of 120 players at the time. I played with the Hortons, Armstrongs, Keons – right down the list. Stanley, and Johnny Bower. Ten players from the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup team in 1967 are in the Hall of Fame. That was a wonderful bunch of guys with a lot of class and a lot of character.” – Ron Ellis on playing during the Original Six era

REED: So much has been said and written about how you and your teammates were not nearly in game shape, and how the fitness level and skill level of the Russians took you totally by surprise. Take me onto the bench at the Montreal Forum during the first period of Game One. Russia tied the game 2-2 with two late goals, and really started to dominate.
ELLIS: For sure. You know, we had a good training camp, everybody worked hard. But we really didn’t have any idea how good the Russians were. There wasn’t the same kind of film available to watch them. And if you did have film, the quality wasn’t very good. And you know, to be honest with you Jeff, you really don’t know how good a player is until you’ve faced off with him, and you’re standing beside him at the faceoff. Here’s a story I haven’t shared with you before, Jeff. In Montreal, Game One, and our line made the starting lineup. We really worked hard for that. We’re up 2-0 and our line comes off the ice. Paul Henderson and I are sitting beside each other, and he looked at me and said, ‘Ron, this is gonna’ be a long series.’ Our legs were burning, our chests were heaving. We knew. We knew. And we were up 2-0 at the time. So it didn’t surprise me at all that this was going to be a long series. And I think that’s what makes it so memorable. If we had won all eight games, like the collective press said we would be, then you and I wouldn’t be chatting about it today. It would’ve gone down as just another hockey series. But I think the way it rolled out, almost an impossible story. If you brought the idea to Hollywood, they would say, ‘No one would believe it. It would never happen. It’s a fantasy.’ But we lived the fantasy, and making the comeback after we lost Game Five in Moscow, and to have to come back and win those last three games, was incredible.
So, the comeback, the miracle comeback and the adversity that our team faced throughout the series certainly are the main reasons it’s being remembered. And it was the first time Canada played the Russians for many years and the Russians were winning – 10 world championships in a row. Yet our fans kept saying, ‘Yes, but they’re not playing our top pros.’ But I’m just so fortunate that I had the opportunity to be a part of that team. I was just at the right point in my career and they needed guys that could play at both ends of the rink, and that’s one of the main reasons I was selected.

“Our legs were burning, our chests were heaving. We knew. We knew.” – Ron Ellis on Game One of the Summit Series at the Montreal Forum, and Team Canada’s discovery that the Russians were a formidable force 

REED: This was at a time when players went to training camp to get in shape. As a kid, I watched a few beer belly Bruins walk through the doors at the old London Gardens for training camp. With so much money involved, and with fitness and healthy eating factors, today’s professional athletes never really take any time off during the off season.
ELLIS: That’s absolutely correct. We wouldn’t even put our skates on until training camp. It was starting to change in the mid-70s. Players were doing a little more weight work and getting on the ice a little bit. The only time you’d be on the ice back in those days was is if you attended a hockey school for a week or two as a guest player. That was it. Most of us had summer jobs. Today, they don’t need a summer job.
REED: Imagine Sidney Crosby working construction during the off-season?
ELLIS: In the 1960s, training camp was six weeks long. You didn’t play your first exhibition game until the fourth week. Now they’re playing their first pre-season game on the fourth day. They come into camp in shape and they have to. They can’t give an edge to a competitor. They have to be ready to go.
REED: And they are so prepared when they leave junior hockey. Look at how the Hunter brothers here in London have prepared the likes of current Leafs Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner.

Photo: Ron Ellis.

ELLIS:  I do believe the young guys are prepared for the NHL. A lot of them have agents and other people, too, who make sure they are prepared. In my day, we had no one but ourselves. There were no player agents, no nutritionists, no personal trainers. The Leafs didn’t have weights in the dressing room until the mid-70s. Then things started to change a bit. But heavens, working out was not the thing to do. Phil Esposito used to say, ‘I don’t want to work out, I’ll get too tight. I won’t be able to shoot.’ You know, there’s some truth to all of that. But today you have to work out properly, and that’s why today’s players have the right people around them. They are totally prepared when they turn pro, and they seem to really have their heads on right. Look at a player like McDavid. He’s another great example of a kid who was ready to play.
REED: You can debate until the cows come home who was the best player that ever lived. For my money, it was Bobby Orr because he revolutionized the game, and his game would stand the test of time. But how can you ignore Gretzky and Howe and others?

“In the 1960s, training camp was six weeks long. You didn’t play your first exhibition game until the fourth week. Now they’re playing their first pre-season game on the fourth day.” Ron Ellis 

ELLIS: The NHL, for their 100th anniversary, had trouble selecting the best player. Bobby Orr, I agree, was the best. He was the exception. I became a fan when I played against him. But if the criteria includes longevity, then you have to go with Wayne Gretzky.
REED: If a healthy Bobby Orr plays in the Summit Series, and if the NHL would have allowed Bobby Hull to play, are we looking at an entirely different series?
ELLIS: Well, our power play would have been damn good, that’s for sure (laughing)! Our power play wasn’t bad, but to have those guys, it would have made a difference. Adding them to our roster, it would not have gone to Game Eight.

“Bobby Orr, I agree, was the best. He was the exception. I became a fan when I played against him.” – Ron Ellis 

REED: Do you get to many Leafs games today?
ELLIS:  I don’t. But the Leafs have been terrific to their alumni. We have our own box.


REED: Do you still get nostalgic about Maple Leaf Gardens?
ELLIS: Yes, and I’m really happy they didn’t tear it down. That was my home rink for 20 years, with the Marlies and the Leafs. So, it’s very meaningful to me and it’s great to see that they kept the façade.
REED: Ron, an absolute pleasure speaking to one of my boyhood idols.
ELLIS: My pleasure Jeff.
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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office http://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com.

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