• Brian McFarlane

The “Busher” Had Everything … and Lost It All

He learned to skate wearing girls skates, stumbling around the outdoor ice on Poverty Pond in West Toronto. His skates and sticks were hand-me-downs, discarded by older kids. It was the early 1920s and the kid, like most of his peers, learned to cash in pop bottles and hustle newspapers to raise some spending money.

He honed his natural athletic abilities and grew up to become one of the NHL’s flashiest performers, gifted with a movie star’s good looks, a player described by Frank Selke as “the classiest player of all time.” He was the speediest member of the Leafs’ famed “Kid Line” and a five-time NHL All-Star. His name was Harvey “Busher” Jackson.

As a teenager, he helped the junior Marlboros to three Ontario Hockey Association titles and a Memorial Cup triumph in 1929. Soon afterward, he joined the Leafs. Conn Smythe wisely placed him on a line with Charlie “The Big Bomber” Conacher and “Gentleman” Joe Primeau. The line clicked almost instantly, and would become the most famous trio in Leaf history.

Jackson earned his nickname from Leafs trainer Tim Daly. One day the surly trainer asked the rookie to help carry some sticks to the Leafs bench. “I’m not here to carry sticks,” snapped Jackson. “I’m here to play hockey.”

Daly snapped back, “Why, you’re nothing but a fresh young busher,” and the nickname stuck.

In 1932, Jackson celebrated his 21st birthday by winning the NHL scoring title with 28 goals and 25 assists. His 53 points were three more than teammate Primeau and four more than Montreal’s Howie Morenz. He became the youngest scoring champion to that date. In 1980–81, Wayne Gretzky would win a scoring title at age 20.

The late Red Burnett, then a young sportswriter for the Toronto Star, once said of Jackson, “He had everything: appearance, stickhandling ability, more shifts than a racing car and a blazing backhand shot.

“He burst like a Roman candle on the NHL scene. Watching Joe Primeau, the clever little center, deal payoff passes to the giant Charlie Conacher, hurtling down right wing, or Jackson, moving with the grace of a ballet dancer down the left side, is something one never forgets.

“The Busher had something special — that extra bit of speed, the size and strength, packed into an almost perfect physique.”

Red Dutton, a bruising defenseman with the New York Americans, was awed by Jackson’s shiftiness. “He could cut either left or right with an almost perfect fake. He had a knack of weaving past a rearguard so close that he practically brushed sweaters.”

Jackson’s offensive skills netted him 241 goals during a 15-year career. But the on-ice skills that vaulted him to superstardom were offset by weaknesses away from the arena. An addiction to alcohol and a hunger for the bright lights led to complaints from his hockey bosses. There were two failed marriages, a series of business failures and unsuccessful coaching stints. He died too young — at age 55, hobbled in his last few years by a liver ailment and deeply hurt by the fans and cronies who no longer cared about him or had time for him.

I would meet him occasionally in the pressroom at Maple Leaf Gardens, where he would whisper his need for “a couple of spare bucks.” His sallow complexion, shabby clothes and lined features gave him the appearance of an old man. I recall the occasions when he appeared wearing a brace to protect a broken neck suffered in a fall down a flight of stairs. “And I wasn’t drinking when it happened,” he insisted.

This was the fabulous forward whom Conn Smythe once described as “priceless.” But not so priceless that Smythe didn’t shunt him off to the New York Americans in 1940. Not so peerless that Smythe didn’t carry enough clout to keep Jackson out of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Smythe once told journalist Dick Beddoes, “As long as Jackson lives, he must not be admitted to the Hall. If we gave him a Hall of Fame plaque today, he would be on the front steps of the Hall tomorrow, hocking it for booze money.”

“Mr. Smythe, bar him from the Temperance Hall of Fame or even the Chivalry Hall of Fame,” Beddoes responded, “but for God’s sake, not from the Hockey Hall of Fame, where performance on the ice should be the important criterion.”

Beddoes was echoing sentiments expressed by Jackson’s linemate, Charlie Conacher. “They inducted Joe and me into the Hall and completely ignored Busher. We should have gone in together as the Kid Line. That’s how we’re going to be remembered.”

Jackson died in the summer of 1968, with his wish to be inducted unfulfilled. Five years after his funeral, he was finally reunited with his Kid Line comrades in the Hall of Fame. By this time, Smythe’s protests could be safely ignored. Beddoes wrote a fitting final paragraph: “There is no humanity in an institution which waits five years to salute an individual just to be sure he is very dead. Flowers are worthless unless you are alive to smell them.”