SUN Hockey Pool

Life fallen off the tracks

Joe Gorman, longtime owner of Connaught Race Track in Aylmer, pauses for a moment during breakfast...

Joe Gorman, longtime owner of Connaught Race Track in Aylmer, pauses for a moment during breakfast yesterday as he fondly remembers Montreal Canadiens defenceman Doug Harvey. (Sun Media/Earl McRae)

EARL MCRAE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

"I've talked too much. No one is interested in me, no one is interested in what I have to say." No, Joe, I told him. You're wrong.

Finding him was serendipity. Over the years I'd tried and failed. He was once one of Ottawa's legendary sports names. I'd heard the rumours. He was dead. He was alive, but barely. He'd gone from millionaire to pauper. He was a recluse. He was bitter. He'd never give an interview. His whereabouts are unknown.

Two months ago, I was at the Chateau Laurier Hotel. I got into a conversation with a desk clerk. Before leaving, I asked him his name. His last name was that of the man I'd been looking for. I asked if they were related. "He's my father," he said. "How old is he?" I asked. "He's 84," he said. He told me where I could find him every morning at 6:30.

Twice I went to Zak's diner in the Byward Market at 6:30. "An old man, I'm told he comes in every morning at 6:30," I told the waitress. "Oh" she said. "You must mean Old Joe. He just left."

Yesterday morning at 6:30, a pale sunlight crept through the windows of Zak's diner. In a booth, an old man sat alone. He was tall and thin and wearing a blue and red windbreaker. A black baseball cap and silver cane lay on the table. His face was pale. His eyes dark-circled. His hands boney and waxen. His dishevelled hair was white, and his wispy moustache, and goatee. A cup of coffee sat before him. He was staring off into space.

"Excuse me. Joe Gorman?" His eyes looked startled. "Yes?" he said in a small, speculative voice.

Throughout the last century, the Gorman name was a colossus in Ottawa sports. Tommy Gorman, Joe's father, was a gold medal Olympian in lacrosse in the early 1900s, one of the founders of the NHL, part owner of the original Ottawa Senators, manager-coach of the NHL New York Americans, coach and GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, coach of the Montreal Maroons, GM of the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-1940s, owner of the Ottawa Auditorium that housed his many sports and entertainment promotions, manager of the Connaught Race Track in Aylmer.

His sons Joe and Frank -- big names in their own right -- owned and operated the track for almost 50 years, but when Frank died, a messy ownership litigation ensued between Frank's estate and Joe, followed by the track incurring bankruptcy in the early '90s, and it was at that point the life and health of Joe Gorman went to hell and he purposely retreated into a nowhere world.

He lived briefly in a seniors residence, hated it, and without notice walked out at 2 o'clock in the morning with nothing but the clothes on his back, and drove to Florida, sleeping in his pickup truck.

He has undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery, nearly died from flesh-eating disease, and his wife -- 30 years younger and whom he'd married when he was 60, his first marriage, and mother of their three boys -- left him, he said, for a parking lot attendant at the race track.

Today, Joe Gorman has prostate cancer that has spread, he is undergoing radiation treatment for a tumour behind his left ear, he believes his remaining months are few. Once wealthy with a big stone house by the track, he now lives alone on his old age and veterans disability pensions in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Market area, the reduced $350-a-month rent compliments of a compassionate landlord friend. He spends his days in the apartment napping, reading the news on the Internet, occasionally venturing out for walks.

My search for Joe Gorman was to have him tell me his story of another man, an amazing story of decency and love, the story of Joe Gorman rescuing from the wretchedness of unemployment, penury, and alcoholism one of the greatest defencemen who ever played in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens' Doug Harvey who, before he died of cirrhosis of the liver, lived by himself in an old railway car at the Connaught Race Track.

"My wife and I went to Montreal to look for him. We found him in a tavern, he was drinking. I said 'Doug, you're coming to Ottawa to work for me, I'll pay you.' I'd bought this old railway car for $10,000 from the CNR. That's where Doug lived. He was split with his wife, but his girlfriend in Montreal, Lorraine, would visit on weekends. His job was security, but he was part of the family. My boys were in diapers, and Doug used to bathe them, change their diapers. He loved it."

A smile. "Late one night, a friend of mine with the Aylmer police phoned. 'Joe, they've pulled Doug over for drunk driving and they're about to put the boots to him. You'd better get down here.' My wife was a very persuasive person. She threw a coat over her housecoat, went to the station, and came back with him."

BATTERED PICKUP TRUCK

Joe Gorman's eyes filled with tears. "Doug was a wonderful guy. He lived in the railway car for four years until he had to be taken into hospital where he died. The new owners of the track had Doug's railway car demolished. Can you believe that?"

Joe Gorman and I left the restaurant and walked to his rusted, battered, dirty, 1988 Dodge pickup parked at the curb. He pulled open the loose, squeaking door. He flipped his cane inside. He winced as he slowly got in.

His left leg and foot are in constant pain from his bout with the flesh-eating disease. "My foot is badly scarred, all the tendons were destroyed. At one point, the doctors wanted to amputate my leg. My wife told them no. She said if that happened, I'd kill her. Better me die than her."

He closed the door. "I don't think I have much time left, but I want to make it to next March. That's when I'll be a grandfather for the first time."

He put the key in the ignition. "With the flesh-eating thing, I was in intensive care a long time and even died once. I went to heaven. It was a greyish place. I saw my mother and father, and Frank in the background. My parents told me to go back, that there were still things I had to do."

Joe Gorman had lost his race track, lost his house, lost his wife. "The wife of the owner of the Lord Elgin Hotel -- they were friends of mine -- asked me to come and live at the hotel. I lived in a room there for almost two years. If anyone tried to find me I had the hotel people say I was travelling in Europe and wouldn't be back for two years.

"Anyway, they looked after me, fed me. They didn't charge me, but I felt guilty, I felt I owed them something. So I sold a couple of assets I didn't know I had, paid them, and found my apartment."

"Kind of, Joe, like what you once did for Doug Harvey," I tell him.

He started the engine. "I never thought of that. Yes. I guess it was."


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