George Turrell has never been one to keep things quiet.
For more than 50 years, he has stalked the halls of Leaside Memorial Gardens Arena, his voice a commanding presence to thousands of hockey players and skaters – and their parents – who learn from the first time they walk through the doors who runs the place. His cantankerous façade initially masking an enormous heart and an affection for kids whom he welcomes with a patented “here comes trouble!”
So, it’s only fitting that when it was decided George – as everyone refers to him – should be given his due, it wouldn’t be done quietly. Instead, the event was big, bold and boisterous, just like him.
“George has been an important part of this community for many, many years and it’s nice to be able to take an opportunity to say that,” Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose Don Valley West riding includes the arena, told about 200 people who gathered in the William Lea Room to tell stories and pay respects.
Wynne, who presented George with a certificate of appreciation for “the commitment and dedication you’ve shown,” recalled meeting him about 25 years ago when her daughters played hockey and softball, and “you were very firm in your organization of them.”
“This community has a big heart and George is very much a big part of that,” she said.
Raymond White, the chair of the board of Leaside Gardens, announced that there will soon be a commemorative plaque and picture of George placed on the wall outside the old equipment room in the original arena, where he first started volunteering in the early 1960s.
“He made sure we stayed in line,” said White, who first encountered George while playing Leaside hockey in the mid-’60s. “We always knew where our dressing room was and when it was time to go on the ice.
“He kept on with the dressing room assignments and being the custodian of the equipment room for so long that even my son and daughter were fortunate enough to have George holler at them, too.”
Current members of the Leaside Flames and Wildcats, clad in their jerseys, came to say thanks.
“I just wanted to support George because he’s always done a lot for us,” Santana Chew, 14, a member of the Bantam Red Select team, said when asked why he came out to the event on a weeknight.
Marlo Campbell of the Wildcats Midget AA team said George has been there throughout her career. “My teammates and coaches change every year, but George always remains,” she told the crowd.
Kathy Mackenzie of Leaside Skating Club said as an immigrant from England she walked into the arena with her kids for the first time in 1983 and quickly understood George was “a fount of all knowledge. You’ve been an integral part of all of us for so many years,” she said.
For his part, George, who turns 78 in May, seemed about as uncomfortable with all the compliments as he did in a suit and tie, occasionally heckling and correcting speakers but otherwise remaining uncharacteristically quiet. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by all the fuss.
Grant Krisman has known George for more than 35 years, dating back to his playing days, then as a coach, hockey parent and now as the long-time owner of the Leaside Hockey Shop.
“He is the keeper of the keys and runs a tight ship down there,” he says. “And, that has not changed.”
Krisman’s son, Tyler, 28, admits that when he first met George as a young hockey player, “I was scared by him, like pretty much all the kids.” But by the time Tyler was at Northern Secondary School, George would regularly show up for his school hockey games. “It just showed me the size of the heart on the guy,” Tyler Krisman says.
George’s younger sister, Pat Boyko, and her husband, Roy Gauthier, say while they were thrilled to see the large turnout at the event, they weren’t surprised. Routinely when they’re out with George, including up north in the summer fishing on the lake, people recognize him and say hello.
“This is his life,” Boyko says. “He loves it.”
And, on this night, the people of Leaside showed him the feeling is mutual.