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on second thought

In Canada, they chase Tim Hortons cups

On any given weekday morning, half of Canada walks around the streets carrying cups of Tim Hortons coffee.

Peter Jones/REUTERS

On any given weekday morning, half of Canada walks around the streets carrying cups of Tim Hortons coffee.

MONTREAL — What’s not to love about this place? Not just this great city, but all of Canada, where on any given weekday morning half the country walks around the streets carrying cups of Tim Hortons coffee.

That, my friends, is a real hockey country. Tim Horton, Hall of Fame defenseman, is the first thought many Canadians have each day when taking on the world. Get up, get outta bed, drag a comb across your head . . . and race to Timmy Ho’s for a steaming cup of coffee and some tempting confectionary treats always displayed in a shiny glass case like pieces of fine jewelry.

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Haute doughnuts, come and get ’em, hockey style.

America runs on Dunkin’. We know that in Boston. Homegrown Dunky’s is the ever-expanding cup o’ joe in our part of the world. But Canada runs, walks, dines, free WiFis, cuts business deals, and does just about everything around Hortons. If you don’t know Hortons, you just don’t know coffee and doughnuts, or the splendid menu of soups and sandwiches and everything else that sports the name of the ex-Maple Leafs backliner.

Horton, killed when he crashed his car in February 1974 en route home to Buffalo after playing a game in Toronto, began his confectionary kingdom 10 years earlier with his first store in Hamilton, Ontario. His partner, Ron Joyce, took full ownership of the then 40 stores soon after Horton’s death, paying Horton’s widow, Lori, $1 million for the whole kit ‘n’ coffee pot.

Today, the Hortons chain is worth billions. Most of the some 4,300 shops are across Canada, but there are more than 800 in the United States, with a cluster in and around Portland, Maine. A few years ago, Hortons, now also with shops in the United Arab Emirates, set up a few storefronts in New York City, but ultimately vacated the positions, many of them gobbled up by Dunkin’ Donuts.

Horton played in a time when pro athletes, though paid well, had to make a buck in their post-careers. Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton, a ruggedly built stay-at-home defenseman, was extremely enterprising. He also started a burger chain (Tim Horton Charcoal Broiled Burgers) in Ontario and owned a Studebaker dealership just outside Toronto. But nothing caught on like his coffee and doughnuts (or “sinkers,” as Canadians often call them).

It no doubt helped his doughnut business that Horton was a three-time Stanley Cup champ with the Leafs by the time his first shop opened in Hamilton. He won his fourth Cup with the Leafs in 1967 (which stands as the Leafs’ last win), then played 2½ more seasons in Blue and White before being dealt to the Rangers. Joyce, his business partner, was a cop who so believed in Horton’s concept that he took out a $10,000 credit union loan to help get the first store up and running.

A coffee-and-doughnut combo in those days cost 25 cents, the same era when $2 bought a seat in the Garden’s second balcony. A dozen doughnuts came to only 89 cents. The menu today is far more expansive and yummy, but it all traces back to those basics.

The stores are spotless, the staff friendly and efficient, the product consistent and affordable. It is a quintessential Canadian brand, in part because it carries a hockey player’s name. As much as we love our sports stars here, nothing in America matches it. Had Babe Ruth had such a brainstorm in his playing days, who knows how the American culinary landscape would look today. Had Bobby Orr jumped on the doughnut craze amid the Big Bad Bruins heyday, that upstart Dunky’s crew from Quincy might have folded up faster than the Oakland Golden Seals.

In big Canadian cities such as Montreal, Vancouver, and especially Toronto, the Hortons shops are everywhere, as ubiquitous as Dunky’s in and around Boston. Starbucks, Second Cup, and Dunky’s play in the Canadian space, too, but none of them walks the Hortons walk. It’s the Godzilla of Canadian java.

Your faitfhul Second Thought correspondent, who has spent much of his career darting around ice rinks throughout Canada, is an unabashed Horty’s devotee. I sometimes pick my hotel rooms based on their distance from, or access to, the closest shop. I have the receipts and cholesterol count to prove it.

In Detroit for Round 1 of the Cup playoffs this year, I booked the Marriott Courtyard, with a Hortons doing business one floor above the lobby. Hockey heaven. I Hortoned for breakfast. I Hortoned for lunch. Three days in a row. It was not only delicious, but it drove Globe partner and coffee snob Fluto Shinzawa nuttier than one of his not-quite-fit-for-human-consumption energy bars.

The first Horty’s I hit here in Montreal, the morning of Game 3 of the Bruins-Habs series, was in Central Station. Two lines, each with customers 10 deep. The following morning, hoping not to wait as long, I tried a different train station near Chinatown. Four lines, each approximately 15 deep. Horton made his name as a rival Leaf, but they love his stuff here in Rocket Richard territory.

Horton never witnessed to what extent his name became such a popular brand. His autopsy, not made public until the mid-1990s, revealed that the alcohol level in his blood was double the legal limit. Traces of other drugs were found in his blood. A half-filled bottle of vodka was mixed amid the debris. The crash along the QEW highway occurred at approximately 4 a.m. on Feb. 21, 1974, Horton reportedly racing his De Tomaso Pantera at approximately 100 miles per hour.

Years after cashing out for the $1 million, widow Lori Horton took Joyce to court, claiming she was owed greater compensation for her late husband’s share, but she never prevailed. The multibillion-dollar company at one point hung portraits of Horton in its stores, but according to reports, Lori insisted that they all be taken down.

Horton was posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977. His portrait hangs there among the game’s greats in the Grand Hall in Toronto. The closest Hortons is but 210 yards down the street. On any given morning, passersby stream by the Hall, carrying telltale coffee cups — small, medium, and large — with his name on every one.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s ‘‘On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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