Lorenzo Sweet endured heartbreak, skittishness and strikes of lightening to become the greatest hockey player ever.
Sweet Lorenzo they used to call him, and to those who skated with him as teammates, he was the best there ever was. Ever? “You bet,” Bus Bimble told me during the time I spent with him in 1991. “How much do you want to bet?” But I only had a five-dollar bill on me at the time, and Bimble didn’t think that was enough. “That’s an insult,” he said. “I’ll lend you something. How much?”
Better than Albert Squirrel? What about Earl Tootikian? Considering, also, Lorenzo’s own friend and trusty winger, the all but unstoppable Orris Glemmon? “No contest,” said Bus Bimble, who skated with them both. “Lorenzo, it was like he was playing another game altogether, with its own rules, that he refused to explain to the rest of us.”
The only son of bookkeepers, he grew up understanding exactly how poor the family was. He never forgot his father sitting down with him at the rough kitchen table to take him through the big ledger where the family accounts were kept, the long columns of starving zeroes, all those wretched ones. “They always had very poor clients, my parents,” Lorenzo once told an interviewer. “Their great dream was to find some richer ones whose books they could cook to their own advantage. All they wanted was one chance. It was the one they never got.”
The Toronto of Lorenzo’s childhood was grimy and loud, iron clanging on iron, clouds of smoke and ash drifting in the streets, noisy trains screeching their brakes. Down at the docks great stacks of lumber were always crashing down. It was an era of screaming babies and hollering newsboys, according to Lorenzo, of men who felt the need to shout their business up and down the streets. The peace he found in the hushed hallows of High Park’s elm forests always led him, in his memory, downhill to where snow was falling on the ice of Grenadier Pond. The children who skated there hour after hour had a silver glow to them, like angels. “They never did allow any joiners, though. You had to have been born right there in the bulrushes, I guess, to get in on their game. They’d chase you off for even hanging around and watching,” Lorenzo recalled. “Block after block they’d keep after you, you’d be running and you’d hear the skates tchk-tchking on the sidewalk, coming on. I assume they wouldn’t have killed me if they’d caught me, but that’s what they said they meant to do.”
He’d always claim it was a black-and-white world back then, just like in the old movies.
Did he go to school? He could never remember yes or no. “Could be I wasn’t the schooling kind,” he told an interviewer in 1965. Still, at twelve, he knew enough to have quietly replaced the real family ledger with an altered duplicate that showed them to be doing not too badly after all—an act of mercy, he called it, and of love, that his parents managed to miss.
At fourteen he joined the infamous Brown & Brown Browns, one of the only teams willing to take a chance on a non-skater, and he rewarded their confidence by scoring fifty-one goals sitting in a kitchen chair. It was Gully Mackerran who got him skating, finally, and took him to Picton in 1929 to play for the ! in the old East Central Punctuation League. Lorenzo came back to Toronto a little older and twice as tough, with all the tricks the fans would soon be flocking to see him perform at the Mutual Street Arena: the eyebrow ruse, his kick trick, the sleight-of-puck routine known as Two Turk Brothers.
He could have played for anyone, Cedars, Mintos, Sons of Ireland, but it was the legendary Percy Nos, Mr. and Mrs., who stepped up and got him to sign next to the big X on one of their notorious many-claused, tiny-paragraphed ninety-nine-year contracts.
Bus Bimble recalls Lorenzo’s first year as a time of soul-searching and painful self-doubt for the team. “He made you embarrassed with all that skill he had, the confidence. You wondered why you even bothered to play.”
It was Bus who put me on to Princeling Nurse, not a name I knew. When I looked him up there wasn’t much. “No, he never really played,” I was told. “At least—he had to give it up.”
I found a mailing address. I wrote. A letter came back and I replied: “Mind if I come for a visit?”
This was in 1991, September, while I was getting into Bus’s debt in Bracebridge. He dropped me at the bus station with carrot sandwiches his wife had made, and I rode down Highway 400 to Orillia. Princeling Nurse was waiting at the terminal. He was in bright golf clothes, with spikey white shoes and a straw hat on and hands he left in his pockets. “Call me Prince,” he said. On the bus a treeplanter in the seat behind me had accepted my sandwiches, eating them slowly, no thank-you, no nothing until he said goodbye with what seemed to be tears sliding down his face. “I’ve been lonely,” he said.
Prince needed a haircut so I went along with him. “My grandfather,” he said, “all his life, whenever he went to his barber, he used to collect up all his cuttings and take them home with him. I have them all, down in the basement in a suitcase. Remind me when we’re at the house.”
It was more of a cabin, in fact. He was up from Oakville closing up for the coming winter. “How much beer did you pack?” he said. “Any steaks?” No, none. We were left to poke into cupboards for our supper, brown sugar on beans with a side of tuna from the tin. The bedrooms were stacked with faded life jackets, fishing rods. In the morning we drank our coffee looking out at loons on the water.
Prince was hardly even eighteen years old in 1933, working as a gardener’s mate, wrangling pucks in his spare time at Mutual Street, hoping for a chance to show the Nos what he could do on the ice. “I’d spend all day in the dirt and then over I’d go and chase down pucks while the boys practised.” It was hard work and—according to Prince—“the pucks were much heavier then.” He wasn’t supposed to talk to the players. “That was one of the rules. If you looked at them, it had to be with your face blank.”
When his big break came it wasn’t the one he’d been expecting. “Mr. No wondered if I could help out with some trouble Lorenzo was having. I said I could try. I didn’t know what he meant.”
The problem Lorenzo was having was skittishness. His first two years back in Toronto, with Orris Glemmon by his side, he’d burned up the league. “No one could slow them down,” Prince told me. “They were unbelievable. Then—I don’t know.”
Prince: “The end of the 1933 season Lorenzo was at the point where someone would skate at him and he’d just shoot the puck away. You didn’t have to touch him. He couldn’t have anyone around. He was fine at practice. People gave him room. But he didn’t have the nerves in a game. So the coaches were worried. The Nos were. I think they gave him—I guess they let him finish the season before they called me in and Mrs. No told me the job. They said it wasn’t going to be easy. They wanted me to think hard about was it a job I could do.”
It wasn’t like anything Prince had done before. “I didn’t know there were jobs like that one. It wasn’t gardening. What they wanted was, I had to go everywhere Lorenzo went that summer and really be on him and get in his way and just be stymieing him the whole time all hours of the day no matter how bothered he got, including waking him up in the night, including when he was trying to eat, including everything. Is that a word, stymie? I wasn’t meant to touch him. There was none of that—no pushing or grabbing or anything. It was just the scrutiny that was going to help him. He wouldn’t like it. Mrs. No told me that. She said, Let me assure you, and her saying that, believe me, I was assured. Just living with me at such close corners he would get used to it, he’d have to, and that would take away the skittishing. Mrs. No said it was noble work. Are you ready for this? She said that. Do you have enough scrutiny? She didn’t know. I was the one who had to know. If it sounds like a tough go, it was. It was the hardest job I ever did.”
The first week he started slowly. “I’d be there at nine to start the day, then done by five. The first week, it was talking and that’s about all. We sat and we talked. We had a nice week. But that wasn’t helping. I think we both realized talking isn’t really the cure for skittishness. It’s not enough scrutiny.”
Week two Prince slept on the sofa in Lorenzo’s living room. “He had a little cold-water apartment up on Bathurst, very gloomy. I remember it not having any windows but that doesn’t sound right, does it? It was dim. The sofa was this very expensive blue sofa Lorenzo had bought with his first hockey money that everybody was supposed to recognize the name of the designer when he told you and ooh and ahh. I didn’t know anything about sofas. I still don’t. It was very blue, which for a gloomy apartment with no windows was not the right colour scheme. The sofa was no good for sleeping. I had trouble with my face sticking to it."
Things changed once Prince was in the apartment. “We didn’t really do too much talking after that. No time. Once I moved in, I was pretty much in scrutiny mode full-time. Involving? Involving I would howl in his ear. I was chewing a lot of gum, I would be right up by him and chewing in a deliberately, you know, wet and raucous way and then I would just let out a howl. If he started to walk across the room I’d be there blocking his way and he would have to do his best to get around me without breaking into fighting—obviously, that’s a penalty. Whatever was a penalty on the rink was a penalty on Bathurst Street, too, that was the agreement. He wasn’t supposed to complain. The whole idea was the obstacles I put up he had to find a way around them. Anger wasn’t any answer. He had to break his anger—that was something they always talked about, the Nos. Lorenzo did it, too. It took some time, but he did it. I guess I can be proud that I was the one he broke it on.”
Everything was going well. “We were making great progress,” Nurse told me. The only problem was Annie Pottle.
“He had just met her and they were getting to know one another and then in May Lorenzo told me that he was going to take a break and I said I didn’t think we were taking breaks for the simple reason that Mrs. No hadn’t mentioned any to me. Well, said Lorenzo, maybe what you’d better do is you’d better go off and ask Mrs. No again. I said, Well, no, she would have told me for sure. Well, he said, best to check with her, run and ask her. And pushed me right out the door.
“Of course I knew that Mrs. No was not askable, which is to say she and Mr. No spent their summer months at a fishing camp they had up in Haliburton without a telephone or even, I don’t think, any road going in. But I went off at a march toward the Nos’ city apartment as though maybe Mrs. No would have left me instructions tacked to the door. But when I got there, of course, no, nothing.”
“When I got back to Lorenzo’s apartment, he had left a note on the door, which was one of those rare notes that’s one half apology and the other half bitter abuse. He was sorry because of the trouble he knew I would be in now with the Nos but on the other hand, I was a bore of a person who never washed a dish and my breath was a plague and the damage I had done to his sofa with my night-drooling was not something he would soon forget, let alone forgive. He had very beautiful slanty handwriting, Lorenzo, I remember.”
Prince was, as he told me, in “a mix-up” of emotions. “On the one side I was proud of the job I had done of getting under his skin, while on the other I had let him get away. It took some quick work and more than a few dollars to find out where he’d gone: north. I was on the next train. Would you say if he’d lost enough of his sheepishness to run out on me maybe he was cured already? I needed to ask Mrs. No is who I needed to ask.”
Nobody on that train was in a welcoming mood—not in third class, at least. “They didn’t want me there, those people. I do not intend to give them the satisfaction of describing their poor manners and loud cackling laughter and oily food and soups that they didn’t think to share other than slopping them on me, and also their babies, who not only refused to sleep but seemed uncommonly hostile to strangers. You’d think there would be one charming baby out of so many but it was not the case. Maybe you would say I did not know those babies well enough to judge whether they had a good future or bad and maybe so, but let me say this: they did not know how to behave on a train. Where were they headed in such numbers? That train seemed to gain babies as we went along, more and more of them crowding into the car as we headed north. At one point, Washago, I remember looking around and they were all staring at me, maybe ten or a dozen babies, with just terrible… intent, is what it seemed like. Of course I was not too worried—they were babies, after all.”
Prince’s information was exactly right. At dusk, when he walked into the old Royal Muskoka Hotel, there was Lorenzo, standing in the middle of the lobby. “I have never been one for awkward moments,” he said, “and so I didn’t mind introducing myself to Miss Annie Pottle, who was an extremely graceful, friendly girl with magnificent brown hair and a smile so kindly—and this is not just me saying so—birds were drawn to it out of the wild.
“I probably do not have to tell you that Lorenzo was far from happy and glared and scoffed at the idea that I would be staying and acted very frustrated and put-upon. Miss Pottle told him to be calm and said maybe would I care for some supper and called me Mr. Nurse and all the while still smiling. A man from the hotel asked if everything was all right and Lorenzo explained the situation in a manner that seemed very reasonable to the innocent ear though in fact it contained terrible lies concerning myself and a blackmail plot and I am sure that I would have been thrown out of the Royal Muskoka Hotel or even arrested and jailed by the local authorities but for the interventions of Miss Pottle and a kind-hearted older lady who joined in on my behalf.
“I did not like to embarrass Lorenzo by bringing up the spectre of Mrs. No but at this point I felt I had no choice and did raise the spectre.” Lorenzo wouldn’t hear of sharing his room with Prince. “Miss Pottle finally convinced him that it was the only way and would take nothing away from their holiday, by gum, and if it did then she would know the reason why and at this point she did something with her smile that I do not know exactly what it was except to say it was very personal and exciting and left me blinking and off my balance the same as if a big light had been flashed in my face.
“So I was in Lorenzo’s room with him and Miss Pottle next door with her mother, Mrs. Pottle, who was the older woman, and also her stepfather whose name I did not ever entirely trust to be what everybody called him: Mr. Darkness. Having left the city in a rush I did not have any luggage to unpack, which situation I explained to Lorenzo once we were in the room together, later, to which his reply: Do I look like someone who travels with a second pair of pyjamas?
“I was a new person in the morning. I felt like I was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d opened my mouth and I’d had an English accent. Lorenzo was back to his old self, and ready to get back to work, which we did. So that was all right. At breakfast, I was back in his kitchen, just like before. So to speak—we were actually eating out on the verandah, not far from the buffet.”
Was it harder in public? I wondered. No, Prince told me, not a bit. “I just went about my business,” he said. “It wasn’t as if I was physically attacking the man. That wasn’t it at all. The trick of it is you have to not touch the person at all. It’s more about being a presence, really. You have to stay as close as you can, just aggravating him at every step. Breathing on his eggs is fine. Blinking—you’d be surprised, but it’s very upsetting if you’re doing a lot of it an inch away from someone’s face. He hated me looking in his ears. That was the one thing he really couldn’t stand. If he got up to get more toast I’d go with him, dog his steps. A victory for him was to get his toast and get back to the table despite me.”
It wasn’t easy for Annie and her mother. Mr. Darkness didn’t take too much notice—he spent all day reading the newspaper. “I never did know too much about him,” Prince said. “He was pretty private.” For people in the wider dining room, they were perturbed to see one of their fellow guests so hounded. Maybe they thought they were next. The hotel management didn’t like it, either. “They thought Lorenzo was under duress,” Prince recalled. “The assistant manager thought he was under my spell. That’s what he said. He suspected that I had Lorenzo held fast in some kind of spooky thrall, if you can believe it. Held fast, he said. He told me: We don’t allow that sort of voodoo here. We have a policy.
Prince asked Lorenzo to put in a good word, explain their arrangement, but Lorenzo wasn’t willing. It wasn’t his concern. “I was walking a pretty thin seam,” said Prince. “On the one hand I had to do my job. On the other, I didn’t want to get kicked out of the hotel. That’s what the assistant manager threatened. He was watching me closely. The night manager watched, too, but he was pretty sleepy.”
Annie Pottle couldn’t have been nicer. She knew what was going on. She understood. “She’d say to Lorenzo, Hey! You think he’s doing this for fun? You think this is for his benefit? She had a breeze associated with her that people always noticed and really enjoyed. I’m not sure how to explain it and cannot say with any certainty whether she herself generated this breeze or it merely followed her, other than to say she was not actively blowing, as some people assume I mean. I don’t. You’d stand there in front of her and it would be fresh and breezy and you’d find your eyes blinking—in a good way. She was concerned that I wasn’t getting enough to eat. She’d bring me plates of— I don’t know, slices of pear, cheeses. She’d say I was like a fugitive she was hiding. She thought I was doing a grand job. She’d tell me not to be discouraged.”
“Lorenzo was playing a lot of golf. Every morning he’d be off to the course. I guess you’re not going to give me a break to swing a little stick, are you? I guess that’s probably too much to expect? I wasn’t answering him at this point, just as another way of testing him. I’d still be right on him, inches away, but now I’d be silent, just staring and being there. Which had to be very disconsettling.
“No one wanted us in their foursome, obviously. I didn’t blame them. Lorenzo said he didn’t mind, but I don’t know. That was the saddest I saw him, looking at other people golfing. It was hard to miss the longing from so close up. Would I let him play just one round on his own? That was his big campaign as we got into the last week at the Muskoka. Just one round! Have a heart, man! And of course I wouldn’t answer. I’d be sneezing as he swung, coughing, clearing my throat but as far as talking, nothing.
“Wednesday night I was in the room with Lorenzo when Annie came by. Well—Lorenzo was in the commode. I didn’t follow him in there. People wonder about that. Annie had brought a dish of noodle casserole. I don’t know if she’d had some wine, but she was in a good mood. I was tired so I was not—to tell the truth, I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I wasn’t too hungry, either, but she kept spooning up casserole for me, feeding it to me. It was very—I don’t know my herbs too well, whether it was sage or… chives, but it was generally very herby. Did I think her mother was pretty? That was the next thing. She was laughing and talking, feeding me casserole, sitting on the arm of my chair. The breeze was up, if I can say that. What was I supposed to say? A woman asks you is her mother pretty you say, Yes, ma’am. I wasn’t following too well. She was telling me that Mr. Darkness was just a friend, and a strange one at that, and if people thought they were romantically involved, then people were wrong, wrong, wrong. What was the matter with people? Were they mad? A woman as vibrant as her mother settling for someone as drab as Mr. Darkness? What, and she would marry him and spend the rest of her life as Mrs. Darkness? Did that make any sense? Her mother had the energy of ten women. She had the complexion of a twenty-five-year-old. Had I ever seen her in her bathing costume? She was like a swan—ask anyone.”
Prince said he doesn’t have a clear memory of what happened next. What he remembers is Annie leaning in to take him into her confidence—to share some precious secret about her mother, he guessed, that she felt needed whispering into his ear. “I was barely awake,” he says.
His memories of those moments remain as a collection of single images, like photographs strewn across a table: a big glistening spoonful of casserole, Annie Pottle’s rubious lips, Lorenzo’s sudden appearance, his surprised face. “I honestly don’t believe she was going to kiss me,” he told me, “but I don’t doubt that Lorenzo thought that’s what he was seeing.”
Thursday, Lorenzo was back on the golf course with Prince dogging his steps. “We didn’t talk about what had happened. Lorenzo was—the same. He was fine. He took his time selecting his clubs. He didn’t say anything about any of it—Annie, the casserole. I did give him a little more room, an inch or two. Maybe I was feeling remorse. For him, it was like I wasn’t there, which I was pretty proud of. Not that I took the credit. The credit was his if it was anyone’s. Anyway. The fourth hole. I don’t know what to tell you. It was a bit of a dogleg, bunch of birch trees up to the left, sort of a bunkery lowland by it. I don’t remember Lorenzo swinging. Apparently he hit the ball clean—his best drive of the day. All I knew about it was when I woke up on my back, I thought, he must have just smoked it. Turned out to be me, of course—I was burning.”
A bolt of lightning had blown Prince ten feet sideways. “People say bolt—to me, it was more like a truck knocked me down, I can tell you. I didn’t see it. The fellows behind us saw the flash and came running. It wasn’t raining, but it was cloudy. I had actually looked at that cloud and wondered.”
Lorenzo was lying not too far away. “I know what you’re thinking,” Princeling said, “and no, he wasn’t smoking. He had some charring, pant cuffs and shirtsleeves. He did look redder, I guess. I was very red, they told me. My shoes were gone—vanished, or vaporized. The fellows who found us thought I was a goner, the way they were talking to me. Someone put their coat over me.”
We’d stayed up late talking on the cabin porch, emptying a bottle of ancient sherry Prince had discovered in a broom closet. The next-to-last big job of the weekend was getting the boat ramp up and out of the lake. “I do this every year,” Prince said. “You’d think I’d remember how.” I thought there was probably some kind of rig somewhere in the boathouse, blocks and pulleys, but no, we couldn’t find any. “Who needs engineering?” said Prince. Without it, there was a lot of cold, wet heaving, some swearing, a bit of blood. “You’re not much help,” Prince said, “and neither am I.”
I’d been doing my best to get as close to him as possible without alarming him or myself. I tried not to be too obvious about it. I did my best not to look into his ears. I guess I could have asked him outright but I chose the stealthier route. I’d read all the stories about the heat he supposedly produced, which no doctor could explain, the oven mitts he was supposed to have to wear. (I never saw any of those.) I didn’t want to insult or anger him. Even if you had the ability to cook an egg on your forehead and bacon on your forearms, would you?
“I know what you’re wondering,” Prince said. “I don’t mind. Go ahead, feel my head. What do you think? Not so hot?”
Not really. Nothing unusual. He’d heard all the scientific talk. The lightning was supposed to have raised both his and Lorenzo’s bodily temperature, though to different degrees. Lorenzo’s new warmth was said to be just enough to melt the ice under his skates, lending him a speed he’d never known before. For Prince, hotter still, the result was disastrous. When he took to the rink for the first time that fall, he might as well have wheeled out a smelter with him. The ice puddled under him—two strides and he was splashing on concrete.
He wouldn’t confirm any of this to me—though he didn’t deny it, either. He struggled to find language that would do justice to the injuries he’d suffered from the lightning. “They weren’t very graphic,” he said. “I’m sorry, but they weren’t.” No electrical burns or terrible sores did he have to show for having been struck, no oozing pus. “We were exhausted, me and Lorenzo, both of us, that was one of the big things,” he told me. “Also we smelled pretty sooty for about a week.” The doctor who came over from Port Carling didn’t think they needed a hospital, so long as they stayed quiet and rested and the hotel nurses kept them cooled. “That was the other part—the heat on us, it was like we had two fevers each. We couldn’t have regular pillows. They’d be sprinkling us with water, laying on the ice. They had to keep us pretty much soaked down to keep the sheets from getting too hot. Lorenzo kept calling for newspapers, but they wouldn’t give him any. They told me that later.”
Lorenzo was up and about in a week, and he was gone two days after that. “Just left,” said Prince. “No goodbye. He didn’t owe me anything, I guess.” Did it make him mad? “What?” That—I don’t know. That Lorenzo had gone on to become the Sweet Lorenzo our fathers loved so well, and pasted into their scrapbooks, whom we all read about and cheered for, the greatest scorer of them all, and the least skittish?
Prince winced and smiled and shook his head and—nodded. The weeks passed. He was hot and he was cold. Some days he slept right through, all the way, waking up as night fell, taking a few mouthfuls of cold beef soup, drowsing away again. He dreamt it was Annie Pottle at the other end of the spoon, with her breeze blowing on him, which, in fact, it turned out to be for real, no dream. It was hockey season again by the time he was well enough to understand why she’d stayed. By the time he was up and walking—it was wintertime, now—she’d told him she wasn’t going anywhere without him, ever.
I asked Prince about never playing hockey again: how hard was that? He shook his head. “I had a great career. I helped a lot of people win the war on skittishness. That’s something. It’s not nothing.”
“It is,” I told him. “I mean—isn’t.” We’d finally wrangled the boat ramp up onto the grass by the cedar hedge. “I think this is where it goes,” Prince said. He gave it a kick. Late in the summer there’d been some kind of beach party down at the shore, with many paper cups strewn to commemorate—Prince couldn’t tell me just what the occasion was. Someone’s birthday or anniversary? The end of summer? Prince shook his head. “It was lots of us, I can tell you that. It was a pretty big bonfire.” Whatever it was, they’d seen fit to toss all their beer cups and empties into the sand, their corncobs and stir sticks. There were stir sticks, it should be said, in their hundreds.
We worked fast. After we’d swept up all the debris, all the sad bedraggled remnant balloons, we went back and scooped up all the stray branches and leaves and a lot of the smaller rocks, too, and driftwood—all of which, in the end, didn’t feel right, so we put all the natural stuff back. With our rakes we left the beach with the furrows of a huge lakeside Zen garden.
I asked Prince whether he and Lorenzo had ever talked, made their peace. He shrugged and squinted. If that was a tear that started down the side of his nose, then it evaporated with a tiny sizzle. “Annie used to say where most people had sympathy, with Lorenzo it was just more cartilage. We thought about inviting him to the wedding. I wanted to, but then we decided just family. Mr. Darkness gave Annie away, which seemed wrong—still does. Though, of course, I didn’t argue at the time. I took her.”