My Dad, Gordie Howe and a Love of Sports
I have spent the week saying goodbye to my father who passed away suddenly last Sunday morning. It was sudden but not unexpected as he has suffered from some heart issues for the better part of two years. I have learned in the past few days how his life had touched so many people - particularly those that live in his neighbourhood in Markham. Erich Traugott was known as a story teller, snooker shark, golfer, good friend and “the nicest guy”. And he was!
In his professional life, he was one of the best trumpet players in the world. Erich was a child prodigy when it came to music and playing the trumpet. As he would say, from the time he was three years old the trumpet was the first thing he picked up in the morning and the last thing he put down before bed. He won numerous awards and music competitions including the open cornet competition at the CNE as a twelve year old. At 15, he joined the band at the Manoir Richelieu in Quebec where he was employed for the summers for a number of years and where he discovered the game of golf, playing with hand-me-down left handed clubs.
Erich won a scholarship to study music at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland where he learned from some of the best faculty in North America and played in the Baltimore Symphony - as a freshman! Upon graduating in 1952, he moved back to Toronto and quickly became a “first call” trumpet player in the city, working extensively on live radio and television broadcasts at the CBC and playing with the top band leaders who came to Toronto for concerts and shows.
Along with playing lead on the original Hockey Night in Canada theme, some of the work that he was most proud of included playing on the soundtracks of The Man Who Would Be King and Moonstruck, working at the CBC on shows such as Front Page Challenge and The Wayne and Shuster Show, and of course, playing with the Boss Brass - a jazz band that was made up of the top musicians in Toronto.
My grandfather recognised my dad’s musical talent early and so playing hockey at a young age was out of the question. It would not have been good if he was hit in the mouth and lost some teeth (helmets were not available in the 1930’s). My dad would always have skates though, as he was friends with the Bauer boys and there were always some old ones to get a hold of. From what he tells me, basketball was about the only sport he played when he was younger, there weren’t a lot of organised sports outside of school in the 1930’s when he was growing up.
But, my dad loved sports. He wasn’t a sit in front of the TV all day Sunday watching the NFL kind of guy but he would take me down to Maple Leaf Gardens fairly regularly to see NHL or WHA games. The tickets were always purchased from a scalper on the corner of Church and Carleton Streets - my dad was an awesome haggler and a master of the “just walk away” tactic. Or, we would walk into a hotel at Jarvis and Carleton and pick up tickets from the bartender - my dad had his ways. My first NHL game saw the Pittsburgh Penguins in their powder blue uniforms against the Leafs. I might have been six or seven years old and about the only thing I remember is that Syl Apps Jr. was awarded a penalty shot.
Dad also managed to get playoff tickets one year for us to see Boston and Bobby Orr come to town. I assume the Leafs lost but when you are a kid, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the crowd, the game and spending awesomely quality time with your father. I found the picture above in a shoe box on my dad’s desk this week. He took it while we were watching Gordie Howe warm up before a Toronto Toros game with Howe visiting with the Houston Aeros. Dad always thought Gordie looked over on purpose for that picture. Being a story teller, Gordie was part of one of my dad’s favorites. He had been playing in the band at an NHL awards night and at a break found himself standing next to Gordie Howe at the urinals in the washroom. Somehow their eyes met and Gordie said, “don’t turn around”. Evidently, he told my dad there had been an incident one time when a fan turned too quickly in the same situation when they saw him standing next to them.
Gordie Howe passed away just 16 days before my father did. I was also fascinated to learn that they were born 48 days apart and my dad spent the first few years of his life growing up in North Battleford, Saskatchewan about 100KM from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where Gordie grew up. They both also suffered from mild dyslexia but overcame that to become truly giants in their fields - Gordie on the hockey rink, my dad in the “band”.
Dad loved baseball as well. We had a terrific train trip down to Montreal to see the Expos play at Jarry Park when I was about eight years old. Dad always liked to get tickets about 12 rows up from third base. He told me they were the best seats and to this day I look for tickets down third base rather than first. While we were walking through the lobby of our hotel on that trip, I somehow managed to end up getting a hitting lesson from Expos player Ron Fairly who was holding court with many folks looking on. That evening at the game it was poster night and both my dad and I got Bill Stoneman posters, having come through the same turnstile. I managed to trade one of our Stoneman’s for a Ron Fairly poster with someone in the stands because of course now, Ron Fairly was my most favourite player (even though my dad always referred to him as Ron FAIRway).
The Blue Jays came along and there were afternoons spent with my dad at exhibition stadium. He couldn’t make the opening game in 1977 because of work (I did go to that historic, snowy game with a friend from school) but we had tickets for the rest of the series against the White Sox that week - sitting in the vicinity of 12 rows off third base.
My dad told stories about meeting famous people all of the time. I would bet that he met Gordie Howe on more than one occasion. Working on Front Page Challenge, a game show that had famous guests on regularly, fueled many of the stories. He would tell of an evening after a particular show when a few of the musicians took Roger Maris out and ended up playing darts. One of Maris’s darts hit the wire and started back at him dangerously. He managed to get out of the way and as my dad said, “if he could get out of the way of a 95 MPH fastball he could certainly get out of the way of that dart”.
Erich also played in a band that set up outside the end zone for all the Toronto Argos football games one season and play at breaks in the game. I would be able to sit with him and drift over to the sideline to watch the game. My dad would dress me up in a power blue ‘70’s casual suit with a navy blue turtleneck and Argo hat or toque. I fit right in! (Actually, I am surprised I didn’t get killed by monster football players crashing over the sidelines.)
Dad thought it was crucial that I learn to play golf - “a lot of business is done on the golf course”. He enjoyed playing and spent a lot of time at the course. Some of my best memories of my dad come from playing at Westview Golf Club in Aurora where for a few summers in my teens I was working a night job and my dad was playing shows at the Royal Alex Theatre in the evenings so we both had our days free. We would head up to the course to meet about a dozen other golfers, from all walks of life, for a daily skins game. Lessons in life abound on the golf course and my dad made sure I learned all of them.
He would also love to come and see my hockey and baseball games. He would bring a folding chair and set up next to the snack bar down at the park in Leaside, which, if you know the park, is about 25 feet from home plate. I loved having him at my games - especially when I was older playing Junior and Senior baseball. Dad wasn’t fond of coming to hockey games when I played with the University of Toronto. He worried too much about me getting hurt so he would watch the tape delayed games on CHCH when they were televised.
At 84 years old, my dad made the 50 KM trek one Saturday afternoon from his house to see me coach the Brampton Thunder of the CWHL. We were playing the Toronto Furies and had a good victory. We had a wonderful chat after the game over dinner and although he wasn’t a hockey expert, he always had great insight into the game. He would always see something that I missed and it was always a valuable little nugget that helped me as a coach.
At the end of the day, my dad was a huge support for me as an athlete and it was terrific that he got to see his grandkids play sports too. He had a life well lived and we will miss him terribly. Rest in peace Dad! You are deeply loved.
P.S. The last time I was with my dad he played a Boss Brass album for me that included this song. It was one of his favourites as it was in ¾ time and has a terrifically long and difficult wind section soli (3:44) in the middle. This concert footage was filmed in California and my dad is playing lead, second from the left in the trumpet section https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etx9tZc82GA (the only time you really see him close up is at 5:16 when he is adjusting his music).