Toronto Maple Leafs legend Mike Palmateer finally gets his Hall of Fame nod — sort of

 

 
 
 
 
In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer warms up for an outdoor alumni game against the Detroit Red Wings.
 
 

In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer warms up for an outdoor alumni game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Photograph by: Craig Glover

NEWMARKET, Ont. — The Popcorn Kid is eating French fries with ketchup and talking about the nature of hockey nicknames and journalists. Specifically, Earl McRae, rest his soul, a legendary sportswriter who, back in the 1970s, which is back when the Popcorn Kid was plain old Mike Palmateer — a rising young goaltender with the Toronto Maple Leafs — asked him about popcorn.

Did he like popcorn?

“I said yes,” Palmateer says. “I explained how when I got to the games I’d get hungry. They would be making popcorn at the concessions, and so I’d have a bag. When he wrote the article they used ‘Popcorn Kid’ in the headline.

“So, Earl McRae turned me into the Popcorn Kid. I guess you could have a better nickname. But, even today, when I am at a hockey card show, there is always at least one person who will come along with a bag of popcorn for me.

“It is what it is.”

What the truth is, the whole story, the one Leafs fans didn’t read in the 1970s, was that Palmateer was constantly hungry, and not just for popcorn. He used to send the Leafs’ stick boy on sausage runs so he could chomp down a spicy Italian ‘dog during intermission. When other NHL goalies were throwing up from nerves, or sitting in their stalls visualizing all the great saves they were going to make, the not-quite-5-foot-10-and-170-pound-netminder — actual nickname: “Palmy” — was thinking about food.

“I was hungry all the time,” he says. “The guys would say, ‘How can you be eating that?’ I’d tell them not to worry. I wasn’t going to let any more goals in.”

Mike Palmateer was the Leafs goalie every Leafs-loving-Toronto-kid of a certain age imagined themselves to be in the 1970s. His appeal was multi-pronged: he was small; he flopped around like a fish on a hook making saves; he wandered out of his crease; he thwacked the hated Steve Shutt (of the hated Montreal Canadiens) with his glove; he was a lefty; he had a super-cool mask with a blue Leaf on it — and a popcorn habit.

He was Dominik Hasek before Dominik Hasek, a goalie with quirks and ticks and miserably fragile knees who, finally, thankfully, is being inducted into the Aurora Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

Had Palmateer won a Stanley Cup with Toronto, instead of undergoing 12 knee surgeries and being pushed out of the city in 1980 by the heartless Leafs manager, Punch Imlach, the Hall of Fame induction invite might have come from the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto. As it is, Aurora, the suburb north of the city where Palmateer raised his two daughters with his wife, Lee, will do.

“I have a speech in mind,” he says. “I know what I want to say, but my wife is the brains of our operation, and so she is going to help me write it.”

Palmateer was at a pub in Newmarket on a recent afternoon, rubbing his new right knee. He had the joint replaced five weeks ago, bringing the total number of surgeries on both knees to 21. (He had his left knee replaced about 20 years ago.) He is 63, slight, stays in shape by seldom sitting down — he built his own backyard deck over the summer — requires reading glasses and retired from being a scout with the Leafs about two years ago.

He has tried playing NHL oldtimers hockey. But, after a game or two, he was encouraged to quit by the other oldtimers, who felt he took it too seriously.

“I thought I was in the Stanley Cup final,” he says. “I was out there butt-ending people.”

He returned again for the 2016 NHL Centennial Classic Alumni game at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, stopping the decades-younger Detroit Red Wings retiree, Tomas Holmstrom, on a penalty shot. The save was a vintage Palmateer back-flop, recalling a more nimble age, both for the goaltender and the city whose heart he once won. A time when the streets were awash with road hockey games, and not traffic, and the kids rolling around in net were all pretending to be Mike Palmateer.

The Holmstrom save went viral on YouTube. The postscript? Palmateer wrenched his back on the play and had to leave the game. Even childhood heroes get old. His doctor measured him recently. Never big, he is now even smaller. “I’m now 5-foot-8,” he admits.

Part of being Mike Palmateer today involves being Mike Palmateer. He played for the Leafs. He made it. Now, fans who adored him way back when are in their 40s and 50s and, in some cases, making piles of money and given to bouts of nostalgia and happy to fly an old Leafs goalie in for a corporate event to tell some stories.

“The best part of those events is that people will tell you a story about yourself and, to them, it’s always a good memory,” he says. “So I don’t mind talking about the past.”

One unnerving aspect about the past is what it could mean in the future. Palmateer was knocked unconscious six times during his career. He suffered three concussions — that he is aware of. So when he walks into a room, say, and can’t remember what he is doing there, or loses his train of thought in mid-sentence, he can’t help but draw a connection.

“Part of it might just be aging,” he says. “But I am sure a lot of it has to do with the concussions.”

The Popcorn Kid nudges an unfinished basket of fries to the edge of the table. He is full. He has a physiotherapy appointment. He rubs his right knee and stands to go.

“The way I look at it, I’m lucky,” he says. “I had the greatest childhood — I got to play sports — and then I got to play in the NHL, and that was my dream, and then I moved to Aurora and had kids and raised a family.

“Now what could be better than that?”

Email: joconnor@postmedia.com | Twitter:

 
 
 
Font:
 
 
 
 
In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer warms up for an outdoor alumni game against the Detroit Red Wings.
 

In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer warms up for an outdoor alumni game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Photograph by: Craig Glover

 
In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer warms up for an outdoor alumni game against the Detroit Red Wings.
Mike Palmateer makes a save against Vancouver Canucks forward Andy Spruce on Nov. 15, 1976.
Mike Palmateer eyes the puck at the NHL's Centennial Classic alumni game in Toronto on Dec. 31, 2016.
Mike Palmateer tends goal against the Boston Bruins in the 1970s.
 
 
 
 
 
 
We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Your voice