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SC Rewind: Hockey & Horses II

Published: December 19, 2015 8:36 am ET

Last Comment: December 22, 2015 9:40 am ET | 3 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

This week's Rewind is the second edition of Hockey and Horses following the first part which appeared in September.

It remembers a gentleman who combined hockey and harness racing in a rather unique way and also includes a few reminiscent thoughts that may interest hockey fans of days gone by.

Remembering ​A Whistle-Blowing Horseman​

A 1950's cartoon by Toronto Star artist ​Jack Reppen depicting the dual careers of the late Jack Mehlenbacher.

​"Jack Mehlenbacher is probably the only man who can say he drove harness horses for a living Saturday afternoons and refereed NHL games for a living Saturday nights."

So read a Golden Horseshoe Circuit publication write up from over 40 years ago as written by publicist Wm. Galvin.

While many personalities from the past of harness racing have had some pretty interesting and unusual combinations of attributes and accomplishments, this man's biography was admittedly a bit different to say the least. I think it fits in nicely (and uniquely) with the theme of Hockey and Horses.

Jack was born into a horse loving family on March 19, 1923 in the metropolis of Nelles Corners, some five miles from Hagersville, Ont. At the age of 16 he first drove one of his father's horses in a race at Toronto's Dufferin Park. At about this same time in 1939, he also joined a farm team of the Detroit Red Wings as a hockey player. His stint with the "Winged Wheelers" was short lived and he returned closer to home where he played in an intermediate league around Simcoe. An old back injury eventually ended his playing career, but his interest in hockey remained.

One night while waiting in the stands for a hockey game to begin, he was asked to officiate as a fill in for an injured ref. He accepted the invitation and so began a new career. He went from the OHL to the NHL where he stayed for six years, still racing his horses at every opportunity. His days were back in the old six-team league when fierce rivalries were commonplace and everyone "played for keeps" as the old saying goes. He dealt with some of the game's most legendary pugilists and ruled with an "iron fist". Once retired from hockey duties, he devoted his time completely to harness racing. This did not mean however that his ties to hockey were ever really over.

Jack Mehlenbacher as he appeared in his N.H.L. referee's uniform and his driving silks.

His travels which began at the local tracks and the fall fair circuit, eventually took him to the major Canadian and U.S. tracks. For a number of years after starring at the Old Thorncliffe track, he centered his operation on the Buffalo and Batavia Circuit in New York. He also spent a considerable amount of time in Montreal at Richelieu Park and Blue Bonnets where fans instantly recognized him from his many appearances at the Forum.

When better racing opportunities presented themselves closer to home as the Ontario Jockey Club tracks prospered in the mid 1960's, he returned to his native Ontario. In time, his sons Jack Jr. and Gerry became drivers and were very involved with their father's business and he lessened his driving activities. At one time early in his career Jack's brother Jim also drove the family horses.

In 1935 when Grand Circuit racing was held at Toronto's Thorncliffe Park, virtually all of the best horses on the Continent were on the grounds including the great Greyhound, then a three-year-old. On the second day of the two-week meeting one of the afternoon's featured races called The City Club Special was won by High Dress, owned by Mehlenbacher Bros. of Nelles Corners. After finishing 12th in the opening heat, the black mare stormed back to take the next two heats and the winner's trophy. With the owner's sons a bit too young to be driving yet, she was driven to victory by Cy Feathers, a well-known Canadian horseman at the time.

Today the Mehlenbacher name remains in harness racing as it has for over 80 years. Jack Jr's son Sean trains at Hagersville and races at several Ontario tracks while John, Sean's brother, owns a number of horses. The youngest John is actually John the Fifth; obviously a favourite choice of first names in the Mehlenbacher family. For over 100 years the Mehlenbacher name was prominent in the small community of Nelles Corners for another reason. At least three generations of the family ran a grain and seed business specializing in the processing and sale of forage grains. For as long as anyone can remember the business sign on their building was visible to passers by on old #3 Highway. The enterprise which started in 1903 was sold in 2003.

I personally had a somewhat unusual chance meeting with Jack Mehlenbacher that I recall with a chuckle. In 1965 I was standing at the finish wire at the old Garden City track as a spectator chatting with the security guard. As the horses paraded to the post, Jack was driving the lead horse. As he passed my vantage point, his stopwatch fell out of his pocket and a trailing horse stepped on just the rim, causing the crystal to pop off. I noticed it and asked the security officer to retrieve it. Amazingly it was not broken and I quickly replaced the crystal. After the race I walked toward the paddock which was adjacent to the grandstand. I saw Jack looking around the area, presumably thinking his watch had dropped nearby. I discreetly summoned him and the watch was returned. [This was my only experience at watch repair]

In a long career as an owner, breeder, trainer and driver Jack Mehlenbacher enjoyed a number of successes. Perhaps one of his greatest thrills came early in his career when he won the Maple Leaf Trot in 1953 at Thorncliffe Park with his own outstanding trotter Vanduzen. In those days the top event of the entire season carried a purse of $2,500!. A number of Supertest, Futurity and other stakes wins also came his way with such horses as Mr. Galvin, Clinterpart and Merry England. Additionally he trained and raced a solid medium sized stable of steady performers for many years, well into the O.S.S. era.

Jack Mehlenbacher passed away in 1999 in his 77th year. He is fondly remembered as a colourful figure in the past of both Canadian harness racing and the grand old game of Hockey. I am happy to have met and visited with this interesting man. I would like to thank several members of his family for their interest and input in assisting in the preparation of this little story.

​In later years after his sons became more involved, Jack served as a spectator at times as shown in this photo. Here he is shown on the backstretch at Leamington during OSS action around 1988 visiting with yours truly. [D.M. Smith photo]

The Era of "Hero Worship"​

When I was growing up, I think we lived much more in an age of hero worship. Hockey players, ​baseball players, ​cowboys, ​w​ell respected people in one's community ,even harness horse people...take your pick. Starting back ​probably around 1950,​ my older brother and I sent away Bee Hive Corn Syrup labels for Hockey Pictures. We hung them above our beds with thumb tacks. He collected Toronto Maple Leaf stars like Turk Broda and "Teeder" Kennedy​. ​A​cross the room above my bed hung pictures of those who wore "The Winged Wheel", members of the Detroit Red Wings ​such as Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly ​and Ted Lindsay. These old black and white pictures were available by mail order from 1934 thru 1967 and are​ still​ quite collectible today.

Above the Bee Hive collection was my favourite. It was a coloured picture of ​#9 ​Gordie Howe. No it wasn't a big poster bought for me by my parents; it was a page torn from an old copy of Sport magazine. I found a well-used old black frame pretty close in size and there it hung for many years. Oddly enough although my personal copy faded into the wild blue yonder many years ago, I actually found the exact replica on the internet and it​ immediately rekindled my memory​.

Meeting Gordie Howe

​Quite a few years ago (​probably 30​)​,​ I read in the local paper that Gordie would be in our City to sign autographs. At the time he was allied with the Speedy Printing Company and so made public appearances on their behalf. His schedule was published and stated that he would be at a few different locations during that particular day. Shortly before noon, I quietly left work for a slightly longer "lunch hour" than I usually took. My hope was that if ever I was confronted about my absence from work that my explanation would stand me in good stead.

As I entered the room where ​"Mr. Hockey"​ was signing autographs​;​ a small but steady line of people came and went. Most just shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, accepted their autographed picture and left​,​ happy to have met a true legend. As the initial crowd lessened I approached the man who I had never seen any closer than on the ice at the venerable old Olympia Stadium. We began to chat and go over a few old stories. As people came in, I stepped back until he was again available. They all left but I stayed.

Somehow I think close to an hour and a half passed all too quickly. We chatted as old friends might. He readily told a joke or two and was even "upset" in a good-natured way when I told him what someone had said about him. Pierre Pilote, an old Chicago Blackhawk once said he liked to shake hands with Gordie on the banquet circuit because it was the only time he ever got to see the inside of his elbow!! He said that!!!

I look back with fondness and respect for a time somewhat simpler than we know today; a time when we all had our heroes and among mine (and still is) was Gordie Howe.

December 22, 2015 - 9:40 amDylan Mehlenbacher wrote the

Dylan Mehlenbacher wrote the following :
Thanks Robert! That's a great article but you can make it even better by changing "1923" to "1922" and he died in his 78th year, not his 77th. I like how you also mentioned what his descendants are up to as it relates to the horse industry. Keep up the good work and thanks for honouring our late grandfather the way you have. We are all very impressed by your story . Dylan

December 19, 2015 - 10:03 amRick Karper sent the

Rick Karper sent the following note :
Not unlike you, my brother and I collected Bee Hive photos. He was a Leaf fan and I was a Canadiens fan. The story that I want to relate, however, has to do with the fact that at the age of 10 and 11, I would spend Saturday morning outside the Montreal Forum awaiting the players following their closed practice. Then I would head over to the Mount Royal Hotel and meet the visiting team in the lobby. Over that period of time, I got to know many of the stars of the day. Red Kelly took me to a movie one Saturday afternoon. Vic Stasiuk saved me his hockey stick after games. Getting free tickets to that night's game was rarely a problem. I still have my 1953 autograph book containing autographs of virtually the whole rosters of Montreal, Boston and Detroit, including Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay. Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, etc.
Those were the years! Rick
P.S. One day ,if we have the opportunity, I would love to show you my autograph book.

December 19, 2015 - 9:27 amI suppose it was more a

I suppose it was more a "black and white world then" than today!!

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