THORNHILL, Ontario — Mourners traveled from far and wide to pay tribute to Jim Gregory during visitation services Friday.
And there will be many more on hand at the funeral of the longtime NHL executive Saturday, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said.
“A lot of guys couldn’t be here today because they had games or because they had short notice and couldn’t get the travel arranged in time,” Poile said. “But I know for a fact that the turnout Saturday will be impressive.”
Gregory, who died Wednesday at age 83, was GM of Toronto Maple Leafs for 10 seasons from 1969-79 before working for the NHL for the next four decades.
“This outpouring of emotion shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” Poile said. “I mean, even back almost four decades when I was early on in my GM career, Jim always was there to help you find your way when you had questions. Not everyone was like that, believe me.
“Everyone pretty much has the same story about Jim helping them. Everyone.”
The love, respect and support for already was evident Friday for Gregory, whose positions included NHL senior vice president, hockey operations and supervision; director of NHL Central Scouting; and chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.
Poile flew in from Nashville. Former Maple Leafs captain Dave Keon came from Florida. Former Toronto forward Lanny McDonald traveled from Calgary. All were on hand to pay their respects to Gregory’s family.
“Jim affected the lives of so many people in such a positive way,” Keon said. “Guys want to come and show how much his friendship meant to them. I know how much it did to me.”
Many of those who couldn’t make it sent so many bouquets it made one of the visitation rooms at Holy Cross Catholic Funeral Home resemble a florist shop.
“It looks like one, doesn’t it?” said Gregory’s sister, Rosemary DeGrace, nodding in the direction of the floral arrangements. “It’s overwhelming, the flowers, the people, all of it. Jim was a special person.”
DeGrace said the number of people who came to see her brother at his home while he was ailing the past few weeks “has been amazing.” Among those visitors: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, McDonald, and former Maple Leafs players Dave “Tiger” Williams and Darryl Sittler, who plans to fly in from Florida for the funeral.
“Bobby Orr planned to come the day before Jimmy passed, but he couldn’t make it because there were complications with the plane,” DeGrace said.
Orr sent a floral arrangement, as did Bettman and Daly, the Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, NHL Alumni Association, NHL Officials Association and the Hall of Fame, among others.
Perhaps the most touching message accompanied the flowers from former Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming, who lives in Sweden.
Salming cried about Gregory during a phone conversation with NHL.com earlier this week, saying that Gregory was like a second father to him and that he loved him.
During Gregory’s illustrious career, one of his most notable accomplishments was bringing Salming and forward Inge Hammarstrom, another Swede, to the NHL in 1973. They were two of the first Europe-born players in the League.
“Thanks for everything you did for me and my family,” the note accompanying Salming’s flowers said. “You meant so much for me from Day One when I came over from Sweden. Your kindness and friendship will always be with me.
“From The Borje Salming family.”
The message had some of Gregory’s family members tearing up.
“Like I said, it’s not a surprise,” Poile said. “A special man.”