This story is over 5 years old.


Meet the Toronto Man Who Has a Hall of Fame Basement of Hockey Memorabilia

Mike Wilson, 62, has a stunning basement of rare Maple Leafs, Wayne Gretzky, and Team Canada artifacts.
Toronto Maple Leafs super fan Mike Wilson.
Daily VICE

From the outside, there is nothing remarkable to distinguish Mike Wilson's home from any other in the affluent Toronto neighbourhood where he lives. The home is neither ostentatious or particularly large compared to others that stand out because of their size or design. It is about 6,500 square feet, but when you pass through the main hall and descend 14 steps into the basement it is like entering a sports museum, primarily with hockey themes.


It is comprised of memorabilia dedicated to Wilson's beloved Toronto Maple Leafs; Wayne Gretzky, whom he considers the greatest hockey player of all time; the Team Canada squad that played in the historic Summit Series against Russia in 1972; and the University of Notre Dame football team because he grew up as a "good, Irish, Catholic boy."

There are sweaters and sticks enclosed in well-lit glass cases; a dressing room door; a double-sided turnstile and wooden seats that are remnants from Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs played from 1931 until moving to a modern building almost 70 years later; player contracts and team memos; and game-day programs—lots of them. Every item has to have a story—that's his rule—otherwise it would have no place in his collection.

"This stuff just doesn't show up at the front door. It's the hundreds and hundreds of miles that I've walked, thousands of miles that I've driven and the countless hours I've spent pouring over books or boxes or whatever, like anybody else who does this," Wilson says.

There are four security cameras and no windows. The Room, as Wilson calls it, is complete with a bar that surrounds the Notre Dame display, and large leather chairs with beer holders for Wilson and his buddies to kick back and watch games on a wall-mounted TV.

It is the ultimate man cave.

Wilson, a collector without equal, is a 62-year recent retiree from the securities business. Growing up in Toronto, he faithfully followed the Leafs, who were about to become a dominant franchise in the NHL, winning four Stanley Cups in the 60s. Saturday nights were special because the Canadian Broadcast Corporation televised Leaf games, already in progress, from Maple Leaf Gardens, the shrine built by team owner Conn Smythe. If Smythe built Maple Leaf Gardens as a shrine for his team, Wilson has built a museum for it in his home, which has more than 2,000 artifacts inside.


"I became obsessed with the game," Wilson says. "If I wasn't watching it once a week on TV on Saturday night for a period and a half before I fell asleep, I'd be outside playing hockey. Three or four schools in our neighborhood all had outdoor hockey rinks, and if there wasn't one near you you'd make one in your backyard. The obsession with the game led to the obsession with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was it; that was the team."


Leafs memorabilia takes up the majority of Wilson's basement. Image via Daily VICE

He began dutifully reading about the Leafs in the Toronto newspapers and clipping articles. And he began collecting hockey cards and coins that companies packaged in cereal and Jello boxes. At the age of seven, Wilson acquired his first collectable. A relative who happened to be a friend of Leafs defenceman Carl Brewer gave Wilson one of his game-used sticks.

"It was my pride and joy," he said. "I'd take it outside and put it on the grass so nobody could touch it. It would just be the trophy for everybody to look at."

But he wanted to use it, and over the course of time it whittled down and became mixed up in a move and thrown out with some other sticks.

Wilson's collection has since developed over the course of more than 50 years, but it all came together in its current form 10 years ago when he and his wife, Debra, decided to move into this house, which is more than a century old, specifically with the idea of renovating the basement. They wanted their home to be available to entertain and to raise money for charities and to hold events for hockey historians. Debra's brother, a contractor, renovated the basement to give it more height. The walls and flooring were re-enforced. A designer was hired and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame helped put the displays together.


Old turnstiles and seats from Maple Leaf Gardens represent some of the memorabilia you'll find in Wilson's basement. Image via Daily VICE

"I had no idea it would turn out like this," Wilson says with a sigh.

Two large coloured posters of winger Frank Mahovlich, the glorious Leaf winger who glided effortlessly on the ice, were among the first additions to Wilson's collection. His uncle gave him two posters of the Big M and suggested he give one of them to Mahovlich's father, who worked as the skate sharpener at the arena where Wilson's father played Sunday mornings.

"I meekly handed him the poster, and he opened it up, tapped me on the head and went back in his room and hung it there," Wilson says. "It stayed there until the day he retired."


It really is the ultimate man cave. Image via Daily VICE

A little more than a year ago, as part of a 30-year reunion he organized for the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association, Wilson had a chance to meet Mahovlich and relayed the story of the poster. Mahovlich told him he received $500 to do it, a pittance compared to what the Leaf team received. The anecdote underlined the reason why Wilson became a memorabilia collector.

"The way he said it was so matter-of-fact, but it was just a wonderful moment for me to go full circle," he says. "This is one of the giveback moments to me that you just can't share with anybody unless you experience it yourself."

Mahovlich's reaction to the story of the poster mirrors that of the many players who have seen Wilson's collection. Some of the greatest players in hockey, including Gretzky, have visited Wilson's sports temple, their expressions lighting up like young kids, seeing a part of themselves or the game that inspired them.


Gretzky attended one of Wilson's charity events and took a private tour, relaying stories with humility and in great detail about the items in the gallery dedicated to him. For about 30 minutes, it was just Wilson and The Great One taking a tour. Gretzky couldn't believe the rare items Wilson had collected, including a signed copy of the star's appearance hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live.


The rookie card every hockey fan wants, signed by The Great One himself. Image via Daily VICE

"It doesn't matter what player it is, a player that doesn't even care about his memorabilia… these guys were kids once, these guys had heroes, these guys have stories," Wilson says. "That's the payback for me. I'll tell a couple stories and all of a sudden the stories just start flowing out of these guys. It's just a great moment for me to be able to share that and give it back.

"I don't like to think of myself as a collector, but more as preserver of history and I feel that the role that has all of a sudden been thrown at me or thrust upon me is to spread the word of the Toronto Maple Leafs, talk about this iconic franchise that I think is one of the greatest franchises in the world."

Wilson on his 5 favourite artifacts

1) The dressing room door: It has become the face of the collection (book cover) and is the piece that seems to resonate with everyone who visits the room, particularly the players. As a young child standing outside the Leaf dressing room waiting for my heroes to emerge through this very door never gets lost on me every time I look at it.


The famous dressing room door. Image via Daily VICE


I remind everyone to let their imaginations wander and think that every Maple Leaf from 1931 until 1999 walked through this very door. Every player stands frozen in front of it when viewing it for the first time (and of course every past and present Leaf visiting has signed it). Think of the people who have toured the Leaf dressing room over the years and entered through this door—The Beatles; Elvis; Muhammad Ali; Winston Churchill; Presidents, etc. The door was recently featured in the Luminato exhibit at the Hearn Generating Station and around the city, 50 treasures of Toronto.

2) 1931-32 signed photo of the first Maple Leaf team to play at the Gardens: This was not only the first team but they also won the Stanley Cup that inaugural year. This iconic piece once belonged to Conn Smythe. I love this piece.

3) King Clancy's game-worn Leafs skates from the 1930s: These came directly from the family and he was the key piece of the historic trade with Ottawa in 1930. He was sold to the Maple Leafs for an unheard sum of $35,000 during the depression. The best part of the story is Smythe used $10,000 of his own money to complete the transaction as the board of the Leafs only allotted $25,000 for cash-strapped Ottawa (he won the money on a horse race bet on long-shot Rare Jewel). King Clancy would remain a part of the Leafs for most of his life.

4) 1964 George Armstrong game-worn sweater: This holds special meaning for me because as a 9-year-old my dad took me on a tour of the Gardens and all I cared about was seeing the dressing room. When I entered the room, the first sweater I saw was Armstrong's. And even though Dave Keon was my favourite, I was drawn to Armstrong. Little did I realize at the time I'd own that very sweater one day. I relayed that story to George when he visited The Room a couple months ago and he had a big smile on his face.

5) The Frank Mahovlich Libby's beans promo photo and ad: This colour poster of Frank in the famous pose spraying snow was the second piece of memorabilia I acquired as a youngster. My uncle got it for me because it was a Dominion foods promo and we shopped at Loblaws. Frank's dad was the skate sharpener at Leaside Gardens—the rink my dad played in the IBM men's league Sunday mornings. When my uncle surprised me with the poster he actually had two. My dad said wouldn't it be nice to give one to Mr. Mahovlich (I hung around their booth all the time) and I said no. Well that was the plan regardless of what I thought. I handed the poster to Mr. Mahovlich, he patted me on the head and then hung the poster in his shop. It stayed there until the day he retired.

I told that story to Frank recently when he visited the room and he was welling up thinking about his dad. He also said they have family photos of their father standing in front of the booth, with that poster I gave him in the background.