The Tim Horton autopsy: Canada’s most famous drunk driver


Monday will mark the 37th anniversary of the death of Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton.

In Canada, Tim Horton needs no introduction. (For everyone else, Horton was a bruising defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s and 1970s. He is better known now for his eponymous chain of donut and coffee shops that have transcended even hockey as a national totem.)

Horton died on Feb. 21, 1974 when his car flew off the Queen Elizabeth Way en route to Buffalo, NY, after a game in Toronto.

For years, there had been well-founded speculation that Horton was drunk when he crashed and died. But the police denied it at the time of the accident, and since no one else was injured in the single-vehicle crash, there was never any public inquiry.

However, I found a loophole in Ontario’s Freedom of Information law that allowed me to get a copy of his autopsy.  Under Ontario law, the privacy exemption that keeps information like autopsies from public view expires 30 years after the subject’s death. That meant Horton’s file was no longer covered by privacy provisions as of Feb. 21, 2004.

It took more than a year before I finally got the file sent to me via the Archives of Ontario. I wrote a story  based on the autopsy in 2005 (Citizen links expire after three months, so this will have to do).

To date, this remains the most interesting document I have ever received through the open-records law.

The detail is clinical and vivid — the description of what Horton was wearing, what was in his car, the grim catalogue of his massive injuries. The pictures show the wrecked Ford Pantera and the responding police officer’s diagram and notes explain how Horton was tossed from the car at high speed.

And, the autopsy reveals, not only was Horton quite drunk — twice the legal limit, the post-mortem blood alcohol test showed — but it also appears he had been taking an amphetamine. He was found with Dexamyl pills on his body.

Dexamyl combined dextroamphetamine with amobarbital, a barbiturate, to take the edge off. It was a popular party drug in the 60s (Andy Warhol popped them) that had also been marketed to harried housewives before it was sensibly outlawed.

Horton was likely taking these to stay competitive in the NHL. He was still playing at age 45 44 and probably felt he needed an edge to keep up with players 20 years younger.

Warning: Some of the medical details in the autopsy may be disturbing to some readers.

(P.S. If you’re a journalist and use this document for a story, please credit me and/or the Ottawa Citizen. It was a huge pain in the ass to get.)

34 thoughts on “The Tim Horton autopsy: Canada’s most famous drunk driver

  1. Great read, thanks!

    It’s very reassuring to read these forms and see the level of detail of the information regularly collected, even going as far back as 1974, by Ontario’s Office of Chief Coroner. Also gives a bit of an insight into chain of custody and the importance thereof.

    By contrast, many U.S. states have politicians for coroners, a dangerous mix of politics and medicine.

    “Oedematous” there’s an odd word. Relating to “[o]edema” (filled with fluid). In my first pass through the document I found a word that I would have expected them to use the “oe”, but can’t find it again.

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  11. and probably felt he needed an edge to keep up with players 20 years younger.?
    No,Tim Horton,had quit! Punch Imlach,wanted Tim back,to groom Jim Shonfeld as a defenceman.How do I know? I was in camp that year,thanks to Mr.Horton as a favour to my
    Dad( they were close friends).In fact,one Sunday morning I was getting coffee & Christie
    the trainer,says kid you`ll get fined! I told him ,I got no money,we laughed.
    In walks Mr.Punch Imlach and said hi ( ???? ) a minute after that ,I look down at the table,
    and said great donuts EH coach?Wher upon Imlach said Quote ” Christie take a note!
    Yes, coach,ok were going to buy up all the donuts shops,then Tim will be forced to play hockey.
    As,to the medication ,Horton,played in Toronto that night ,with a near
    SEPARATED Shoulder! After the game ,he saw some good friends,then went to Oakville.
    To see Ron Joice,president of Tim Hortons and talk business.and left very late.
    So,one your “GUESS ”
    and probably felt he needed an edge to keep up with players 20 years younger.
    IS A CROCK.As ,to the accident have a real chat with the OPP!
    PS; Read : Open Ice: The Tim Horton Story
    quote: Beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, Open Ice remembers a colourful and unforgettable era in sport, and an extraordinary man who, twenty years after his tragic death, still touches deeply the lives of those who knew him. Tim Horton was an athlete, a businessman, and a man whose profound enthusiasm for life was checked only by the values and beliefs of his northern Ontario upbringing. Occasionally — in the thrill of a hockey game or speeding on the open road — he would allow those restraints to fall away, eventually with fatal consequences. One man’s quintessential hockey story, Open Ice is an ambitious, riveting saga of the game, and a major accomplishment in sports writing

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