The legend of Spadina Avenue hatter Sammy Taft, and his role in inventing hockey's traditional three-goal salute.
We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.
There are as many legends surrounding the origins of the phrase “hat trick” in hockey as there are goals that comprise one. One story traces the coinage to Guelph, where Biltmore Hats offered a head-topper to high-scoring players on its Mad Hatters junior squad. Another claims Montreal haberdashery Henri Henri offered a free hat to triple-goal scorers at the old Forum during the 1950s.
But the Hockey Hall of Fame recognizes Sammy Taft, a colourful Toronto hatter, as the originator of the hat trick. Regardless of the validity of his claim, he was an oversized personality, whom the Toronto Star once described as “the last of the crowd of Spadina chuchems and gonifs—wisenheimers and wheeler-dealers…ready to sacrifice almost anything for a one-liner.”
Growing up along Spadina Avenue, Taft discovered a gift for gab while working as a tie salesman. He was barely out of his teens when he opened a store, during the early days of the Great Depression. “One day this man walked in and he said ‘Why don’t you sell hats?’” he told the Star in a 1981 interview. “I told him I was desperate, I could sell anything but I didn’t have any money. The gimmick was, he’d give me a start and I’d either have hats in the store or his money’d be in the bank.” When the man returned a month later, all but two of the hats had sold. “Like Rodin with his clay,” the Star’s Susan Kastner wrote in a 1990 profile of Taft, “he would mold the unformed hatness to fit the essential you. You came in looking like a short, elderly golfer, you went out looking like Cab Calloway.”
Calloway himself was among the many entertainers whose photos lined the walls of the store at 303 Spadina Avenue. Taft posed with stars ranging from Duke Ellington to Bob Hope, as well as local bigwigs. The publicity worked well for the “World Famous Hatter.” Taft sold up to 10,000 hats annually during the 1940s.
The legend goes that Chicago Black Hawks (that’s how the team’s name was spelled in those days) left winger Alex Kaleta wandered into Taft’s store while visiting Toronto in January 1946. A fedora caught his eye, but he didn’t have enough money to pay for it. Thinking of the promotional possibilities, Taft made an offer: if Kaleta scored three goals against the Maple Leafs that night, the hat was his. Kaleta went one better. Though the Black Hawks lost 6–5 to the home team on January 26, 1946, he scored all but one of Chicago’s goals. Taft claimed he heard Kaleta’s accomplishment referred to as a “hat trick” on the radio. (The term itself didn’t originate with shinny, though. From the 1850s, English cricket players received bowler hats for taking three wickets in three balls.)
Along with many of his fancy threads, Kaleta passed the hat to his youngest brother Arthur. Unfortunately, it disappeared during a move, around 1955. The family didn’t realize its significance until Hockey Night in Canada aired a segment about Kaleta’s hat trick a few years after he died in 1987. “I was shocked,” Arthur told Black Hawks historian Bob Verdi. “If I had kept that hat, I’d be a millionaire. Actually, if I had kept that hat, it would be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, where it belongs. But that was typical Alex. He was a terrific player but never put himself above anybody else and never said a word about the hat trick.”
Hockey players soon joined entertainers in Taft’s ads, and Taft himself eventually became one of Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard’s cronies. The hat business moved to Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue in 1984, partly due to the changing identity of the old neighbourhood, and partly so an aging Taft could work closer to his Downsview home. Before his death in 1994, his tales about his colourful life formed the basis of a one-woman play called simply, Sammy Taft, World Famous Hatter.
Additional material from the January 3, 1994 and January 27, 1994 editions of the Globe and Mail, the March 21, 2009 edition of the Guelph Mercury, and the December 6, 1981, October 31, 1984, June 3, 1990, and January 3, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star.