James Angus Gerald Mortson
Born: January 24, 1925 (New Liskeard, Ontario)
Died: August 8, 2015 (Timmins, Ontario)
Gus Mortson was an abrasive defenceman known as Old Hardrock for his punishing bodychecks and ability to absorb a punch while engaged in fisticuffs.
Mr. Mortson, who has died at 90, won four Stanley Cups in a five-season span while with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post-war years. In those championship seasons, he was usually paired with Jim Thomson, a stay-at-home defenceman whose preferred style was to clutch and grab an opponent. The duo were dubbed the Gold Dust Twins for their effective protection of the Toronto goal.
A fine skater who enjoyed rushing with the puck, Mr. Mortson never scored more than seven goals in an NHL season. He was more effective as a hard-nosed defender often found in violation of the hockey rulebook.
He led the NHL in penalty minutes in four seasons, earning a reputation as a player not averse to employing nefarious means to prevent a rival from scoring. He contributed to many notorious melees, donnybrooks and bench-clearing brawls, including a notorious battle near the end of a playoff game in his rookie season, during which an outraged fan threw a folding chair and Mr. Mortson wrestled with a Detroit policeman. A misconduct penalty was assessed on the defenceman by the referee, but the player and the policeman later shook hands and there were no criminal charges.
James Angus Gerald Mortson was born on Jan. 24, 1925, in the Ontario agricultural and mining community of New Liskeard (now Temiskaming Shores) to Angela (née Pelangio) and Norman Mortson, a prospector. The boy was raised in Kirkland Lake, a gold-mining town also known for producing hockey players.
“From the time I was 10 years old, I was out staking property with my dad, who was always involved in claim staking and prospecting,” he told the Toronto Star in 1983. “I was staking property when I broke into the NHL and even in the off-season I would go out in the bush with my dad for a week or so hunting for ore.”
At 18, Mr. Mortson played for the Kirkland Lake Lakers along with teammate Ted Lindsay, a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The following season he and Mr. Lindsay joined the St. Michael’s Majors junior team in Toronto. Both were seconded to the Oshawa Generals for the finals of the Memorial Cup playoffs, where they helped the team sweep to the championship in four games against the junior Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters.
The defenceman repeated as a Memorial Cup champion in 1945 with St. Michael’s.
After a year of seasoning with Toronto’s Tulsa (Okla.) Oilers farm team, Mr. Mortson made his debut with the Maple Leafs. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound player wasted no time in exhibiting his pugnacious style. The 1946-47 season opened with an exhibition game pitting the Leafs against NHL all-stars and referee King Clancy thumbed Mr. Mortson for three minor penalties.
Mr. Mortson led the NHL in penalties in his rookie campaign with 133 minutes. In the Stanley Cup finals that year, he scored a goal and injured Rocket Richard with a check, as the Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games.
The Leafs repeated as champions the following season by sweeping the Detroit Red Wings in four games. Mr. Mortson scored a goal and an assist in the opening game of the series, only to be removed from Maple Leaf Gardens on a stretcher after he and Mr. Thomson attempted to sandwich Detroit’s Black Jack Stewart with a double bodycheck.
“My skate turned in on me, stuck in the ice and when Stewart rode into us, my whole weight came down on my leg,” Mr. Mortson said after the game. “I could feel something go.”
He had suffered two breaks to his left leg — one just below the knee and another running six inches along the shinbone to the ankle. His playoffs were over, but he would return healthy at the start of the following season, during which the Maple Leafs would win their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
A fourth championship came in 1951 when the Leafs defeated the Canadiens in five games, all going to overtime. The Cup-winning goal was scored by fellow defenceman Bill Barilko, who would be killed in a plane crash four months later.
Despite Mr. Mortson’s notoriety and three previous titles, the Stanley Cup engraver mistakenly misspelled his name as Wortson on the section of the metal band for the 1951 championship.
The defenceman’s reputation for dirty play enraged his rivals. He was once accused of kicking Detroit’s Fred Glover with his skate after knocking him to the ice with a crushing check against the boards. In his defence, Mr. Mortson insisted his opponent had kicked first. In any case, the referee assessed only a minor penalty for roughing on the Leafs defenceman.
He was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks with Ray Hannigan, Cal Gardner and Al Rollins for goalie Harry Lumley just before the start of the 1952-53 season. He served as captain of the team for three seasons before being traded to Detroit in 1958.
In 797 NHL games, the defenceman scored 46 goals with 152 assists and 1,380 penalty minutes. He skated in eight All-Star Games.
After leaving the NHL, Mr. Mortson played for the minor-league Buffalo Bisons before being reinstated as an amateur so he could play senior hockey in Ontario with the Chatham Maroons and Oakville Oaks.
He coached junior-B hockey in the Toronto suburbs while operating a food-and-beverage distribution business. He sold pizzas and smoked meat sandwiches at the annual Canadian National Exhibition. He later worked as a stockbroker and a mining and manufacturer’s representative in a territory stretching along the vast Canadian Shield from Red Lake, Ont., to Chibougamau, Que.
Mr. Mortson died on Aug. 8 at the Golden Manor Home for the Aged in Timmins, Ont. He leaves Sheila (née Kennedy), his wife of 66 years. He also leaves three sons, three daughters, 17 grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, John Angus Mortson, a retired police officer who died at age 55 in 2010.
Mr. Mortson was inducted into the Timmins Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in 2014.
Late in his playing career, Mr. Mortson became an advocate for a union of hockey players. This led to an infamous public exchange with Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe during a 1957 game in Toronto. Mr. Mortson was sent to the penalty box, where he yelled at the referee. This led Mr. Smythe to lean over to yell at his former employee about getting help from the lawyers who were assisting in establishing a player’s association. Mr. Mortson then shook his fist at Mr. Smythe, snapped off a military salute, and thumbed his nose.
“We had a nice, friendly conversation,” the player later told a reporter. “Covered 10 years in two minutes.”
Gus Mortson wheels away from his goal in pursuit of the puck.