Howard Darwin, 1931€2009

By Wayne Scanlan, The Ottawa CitizenOctober

Howard Darwin at the Civic Centre.
Photograph by: File photo, The Ottawa Citizen

His passing signals another shift away from a simpler time when the Ottawa sports community was a village.

Howard Darwin was its heart.

Darwin, a month past his 78th birthday, died on Thursday of complications following coronary surgery.

?He was one of a kind,? former Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell said from Winnipeg, where he was attending a business meeting. ?The city has lost one of its real treasures.?

Before Ottawa went big-league with an NHL franchise in 1992, it was a place where ?wrasslin?? shows, boxing matches, Rough Riders football and junior hockey ruled ? and Darwin, the reluctant jeweller, was in the thick of it as a promoter and booster.

Along with longtime partner Earl Montagano, Darwin nearly owned an NHL team himself, just missing out on a purchase of the St. Louis Blues in the 1980s.

Darwin?s jewelry store on Wellington Street doubled as a hot stove lounge as friends and media stopped by to talk sports. Other important decisions were made over cold pints at the Ottawa Nepean Sports Club on Cobden Road, where the late Gord Hamilton presided, another village chieftain.

Howard was a do-er and a fixer, a helper to underprivileged kids, perhaps because he?d been one, a visionary who made money because he saw the future of real estate and cable TV. As a boy, Darwin sold papers. But he read them, too. Especially the business section.

When Durrell, the sitting mayor in the early 1990s, needed a champion for his dream of bringing professional baseball to Ottawa, he knew where to turn. Against all odds, Darwin made it happen.

No one who lived such a colourful life should be so humble and unassuming ? but that was Howard, brokering million-dollar deals with lords of enterprise then sitting down to a beer with ordinary working men. When Darwin was about to buy the baseball Lynx, a new affiliate for the Montreal Expos, Expos owner Charles Bronfman kept imploring Howard to call him Charles, but the respectful Darwin insisted on ?Mr. Bronfman.? Still, when Bronfman wanted to be cut in on the Lynx purchase, Darwin, the businessman, politely rebuffed him.

Few knew how often he would quietly slip tickets or souvenirs to kids at the Ottawa Boys Club. Though Darwin could curse like the sailor he once longed to be, there has never been a kinder sports figure in the community. Or one more true to his word.

?His word was his bond,? said 67?s general manager Brian Kilrea, who never needed a written contract to work for Darwin and Montagano. Kilrea went on to win more games than any coach in OHL history. Howard might have been famous enough if he?d done nothing else but hire Kilrea on a hunch in 1974.

Instead, Kilrea and the 67?s are just part of the Darwin legacy.

Without Darwin there would be no major junior hockey team in Ottawa, no Civic Centre, still home to the 67?s and, temporarily, home to the NHL Senators before their arena was built in Kanata. Darwin took a fatherly pride in the ballpark he helped build on Coventry Road ? home to the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx from 1993-2007.

I called him in July to talk about the sad state of the city-run stadium, the place locked, bolted, desolate, weeds two and three feet high having the run of the once glorious diamond. Howard warmed to the topic in an instant.

?I went by there a few days ago,? Darwin said on the phone that morning. ?It tore my heart out. It?s just awful.?

When Darwin spoke, people usually listened, although he could tell you about a few deaf ears at City Hall over the years. They listened in July, when Howard delivered this message in a salty voice:

?Open up the goddamn park. Let the Orléans little league teams play there. Or the Ottawa Nepean Canadians. Open the park up and let the kids use it. The city cuts the grass on playgrounds, doesn?t it? Well, that?s a hell of a playground there.”

After Darwin?s comments appeared in a front page piece, the city did clean up the ballpark, and opened it up to community use. There remains, even with Howard?s passing, the hope that professional baseball might once again return to the ballpark, and if not pro baseball at least a commitment to share it with local teams.

Darwin brought cable TV to Ottawa, once owned two major junior clubs simultaneously, the 67?s and London Knights, he bought and sold major real-estate properties, knew all the great wrestlers and boxers in the romantic era of those sports ? and yet it was the building of Ottawa Stadium, the former Jetform Park, he considered his greatest accomplishment.

?Ottawa Cablevision, I got that started, that was big,? Darwin said, when he was interviewed for a 1999 feature naming him Ottawa?s No. 7 ranked sports figure of the 20th century. ?But the stadium project was so tough. It went to (Ottawa council) nine times for approval, and we lost six times. Then we had to get the (International League) franchise and we were just one of 19 cities bidding.?

In recent years, Darwin had divested himself of all his sports enterprises, spending most of his time with his wife, Connie, his children and grandkids.

He was a Darwin by name, and to be sure there was a survival element to his remarkable story, but think of Howard as more Dickensian than Darwinian. Charles Dickens could have created such a character as this ? a rags-to-riches self-made man who became one of this country?s most humble millionaires.

The fourth of five children, Howard grew up on Nicholas Street in a tough neighbourhood. After Darwin?s mother died of cancer when Howard was six, Howard and his little brother, Rupert, more or less raised themselves. Their father was a security guard on shift work and was rarely home. An older sister was working as a live-in maid for an elderly couple.

Howard?s older brothers, Jack and Percy, left to join in the Second World War. Only Percy returned home, Jack died in battle just months before the war ended.

Howard quit school by Grade 10 and tried to join the navy, but was too young. By then he was already making a name for himself as a hawker of newspapers downtown, a child entrepreneur. Readers were desperate to hear and read of the news overseas, Howard was keen to oblige.

?I made nine-tenths of a cent per paper,? Howard said. Not a bad profit considering the Citizen retailed for three cents a copy in those days.

By the end of the war, 14-year-old Howard was selling up to 1,000 papers a day, earning $50 to $60 a week. Darwin was likely the only teenager in town who got his suits tailor-made, dropping a week?s wages at Sol Max?s on Rideau Street.

?My biggest expense was the wagons I wore out lugging papers from the naval building to the air force and army buildings,? Darwin said. ?I went through 10 or 12 a year.?

In his mid-teens, he decided he needed a trade, so apprenticed at Tim Burke?s jewelry store. At 19, he had opened up his own watch repair store on Nicholas. Within five years he?d moved to Wellington Street and a jewelry store he would operate until 1991.

Sporting gems always held the greater allure.

Until the day he died, Darwin rued just missing out on staging a heavyweight championship bout involving Muhammad Ali in 1966. He came so close.

Globally adored today, Ali was then a pariah because of his anti-Vietnam war stance, banned by the Ontario Boxing Commission from fighting in Ontario. That prompted Darwin to pitch an Ali-Ernie Terrell fight across the river in Hull. It was all but set.

Darwin had telegrams confirming the bout, and loved to tell the story of Frank Sinatra?s agent asking for 100 of the best seats at the Guertin Arena. Big Frank wanted to be ringside.

At the last minute, the Ontario government approved an Ali fight for Toronto. Instead of Terrell, Ali fought Canadian George Chuvalo.

Howard missed that one, but not many others.

?He had a full run, my buddy,? Durrell says. ?A full run.?

When the man is Howard Darwin, even a full run seems too short.

Howard Darwin: Highlights of a Life

Sept. 10, 1931: Born, fourth of five children, growing up on Nicholas Street. His mother dies when he is six.

1945: By the end of the Second World War, out of financial necessity, Darwin is selling up to 1,000 newspapers a day, earning $50-$60 a week.

1945-?46: At 14, starts as apprentice jeweller

Late 1940s-?50s: Fights in 30-35 amateur bouts at the Beaver Boxing Club

1950: By 19, he opens his own watch repair shop on Nicholas

1950s: Becomes more involved in boxing. Referees fights, promotes matches, manages fighters. Promotions include wrestling, closed-circuit TV boxing.

1954: Marries Connie Goudie. Has four children, Kim, Nancy, Jack, Jeff.

1955: Moves jewelry store to Wellington Street

1962: Starts building up real estate portfolio, a move that eventually made him millions

1965: Starts Ottawa Cablevision with 15 or so investors. ls rewarded handsomely later when he sells his shares to Selkirk Broadcasting.

1967: Brings Ottawa 67?s into the Ontario Hockey League, a move that provides impetus for Ottawa to build the $11-million Civic Centre

1974: Hires Brian Kilrea to coach the 67?s

1984: 67?s win Memorial Cup

1987: After owning the OHL London Knights for 19 years, Darwin sells the team to a trio of London businessmen

1992: Closes Wellington Street jewelry store after more than 40 years in the business

1993: Pays $5 million for a Triple A franchise and forms the Ottawa Lynx. In its first year, the Lynx drew an average of 9,764 fans a game. In 1995, the team won the International League championship.

1998: Sells 67?s to Jeff Hunt for $2.5 million

2000: Sells Lynx for $7 million to Vermont businessman Ray Pecor

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