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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Billy Harris / Led Hornets to AHL title in 1967, played for Penguins

Friday, September 21, 2001

By Fritz Huysman, Assistant Managing Editor, Post-Gazette

Billy Harris, who led the Pittsburgh Hornets to the American Hockey League championship in 1966-67 and ended his National Hockey League career with the Pittsburgh Penguins two years later, died in a Toronto hospital yesterday. He was 66.

Mr. Harris, who spent 10 of his 13 years in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs, had been admitted to the hospital two weeks ago with a rare form of leukemia.

A four-time NHL All-Star, he played in 769 games with Toronto, the Detroit Red Wings, Oakland Golden Seals and Penguins. He had 126 goals and 219 assists in his NHL career.

He was a member of three Stanley Cup-championship teams in Toronto, where he played on the "HEM Line" with wingers Gerry Ehman and Frank Mahovlich.

After splitting the 1965-66 season between the Hornets and their parent club, Detroit, Mr. Harris, a center who stood 6 feet tall and whose weight was variously estimated from 155 to 165 pounds, led the Hornets to the AHL title in 1966-67, a year he called "my most enjoyable season in hockey." He scored 70 points in 70 games that season, including 34 goals. He added two goals and six assists in the Calder Cup playoffs.

At a reunion of former Hornets at Mellon Arena last February, he spoke of his fondness for Pittsburgh and thanked Penguins management for remembering a team that won a minor-league championship more than three decades earlier.

"What's nice about this is, it's 34 years since we won," Mr. Harris told the Post-Gazette after he and several former Hornets teammates were saluted in a pregame ceremony. "All the talk now is about a new building [in Pittsburgh]. We could have been a forgotten issue, but here we are. A very nice gesture."

Jack Riley, former general manager of the Penguins and a longtime friend, recalled talking with Mr. Harris at the reunion.

"He looked great," Riley said. "He told me he had leukemia, but we thought it was in remission."

Known as Hinky to his teammates, Mr. Harris averaged less than 10 goals a season during a 13-year NHL career. He had a knack, however, of scoring goals when they were needed most.

"He was a pretty good hockey player," Riley said. "Very intelligent, a real gentleman and very popular with his teammates."

He led the Hornets in scoring during their championship season, but wasn't among the AHL's top 10 scorers at the end of the year. He was one of several former NHL players who played for the Hornets that season, and the Hornets' well-balanced scoring and veteran defense overwhelmed opponents at times. The team won the regular-season championship with 92 points and then rolled through the playoffs, sweeping the Rochester Americans in four games in the Calder Cup final.

"We had first placed locked up by Christmas," Mr. Harris recalled in an interview.

The following season the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams, and Mr. Harris was selected by Oakland, one of the expansion teams. He was acquired by Riley for the Penguins the following season, his last as a player.

He began coaching in 1969 and served in a variety of roles with the Canadian national team, Sweden, the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Toros of the now-defunct World Hockey Association.

He later earned a bachelor's degree in education at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, doubling as coach of the university's hockey team.

For many years, Mr. Harris was president of the Maple Leafs' alumni association. His memoir about his playing days in Toronto, "The Glory Years: Memoirs of a Decade - 1955-65," was published in 1989.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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