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With World War II raging, the Toronto Maple Leafs--and the entire National Hockey League--struggled to find players. Sometimes, they found some gems, got them into the lineup, and then duty called.
Such was the case for Shep Edwin Mayer.
A native of Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, Mayer went to Sturgeon Falls Secondary and North Bay Collegiate. After a season with the Sturgeon Falls Indians in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, Mayer became a sought-after star on the Guelph Biltmores Junior A hockey team. He was placed on the Leafs' negotiation list in February 1942, and he inked a deal on April 4, 1942.
The Toronto Star wrote about the Leafs' acquisition of Mayer from Guelph on April 8, 1942: "Shep Mayer, aggressive star of the club, who plays an equally effective game at right wing, centre or on defence, has been signed by Toronto Maple Leafs N.H.L. club and will report to that club for training next fall. Shep came here last fall from Sturgeon Falls, and played a big part in the local junior's drive to the O.H.A. Finals."
Guelph was his favourite place to play, said Mayer's widow, Marie, who now calls North Bay, Ontario, home. "He enjoyed himself so much there. He had such fond memories of that year that he was there."
Documents in his file from Maple Leaf Gardens indicate that the Leafs intended to send Mayer to the Hershey Bears for grooming.
But need--and hype?--kept him with the big club.
The Star published a poem by F.B. Eye hyping him in its July 18, 1942 edition:
Shep Mayer is quite a player.
In fact, he is such a wowski
The hockey sages say that he
Will be a second Stanowski!!
The four-line ode ran as a part of a glowing piece by Ed Fitkin, who predicted that "before next winter is through his name should be a household hockey word."
Leafs boss Frank Selke compared him to a veteran defenceman: "Mayer will be strong than Bingo Kampman when he matures."
Fitkin found Mayer in Toronto's Wellesley hospital, recovering from surgery for a slight hernia.
Mayer laughed when Fitkin asked about the comparison to "Hercules" Kampman. "I don't know about Kampman," he said. "But I got my strength working in the Sudbury mines as a plain, ordinary mucker, sometimes 4,200 feet below surface."
In the piece, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Mayer goes on to talk about playing on the frozen river in Sturgeon Falls, and a dream of being a big name boxer. He did, incidentally, do some amateur boxing in Northern Ontario, and that is where the hernia comes in. "I strained myself lifting ring equipment--four posts, the ropes and some dumbbells--on to my dad's truck to take home for training purposes. I was laid up for weeks."
In an article by Andy Lytle, Selke said the boxing was a bonus: "Mayer was boxing at Sturgeon Falls when I first flushed him," said Selke, "and while I counted nine different guys took the count at his feet."
Playing in Guelph, his skills improved in a hurry under the guidance of coach Al Murray, who replaced Tony Savage. "I was really a farmer playing defence until Al showed me how," Mayer said. "He taught me more about hockey once he took over than I ever knew before."
Cracking the Leafs lineup, coach Hap Day said Mayer "has thighs like bridge pillars. I think he can take it or hand it out."
Mayer potted one goal and lined up two assists in his brief run as a Maple Leaf.
He was needed in another Maple Leaf sweater, and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on November 9, 1942. He was sworn in on November 11, and posted to manning depot at Brandon, Manitoba.
New love would be discovered, said Marie Mayer.
"He went into the Air Force, and he loved flying," she said. "When he came back from the war, things were up in the air. I know he spoke with Mr. Smythe, but he never went into detail too much with me."
The RCAF wanted to keep him around.
"Because he had been a pilot, they called him back; they wanted him to come back and also play -- because at the time he was also playing hockey for the Air Force," she added. "He did go back, but he didn't go back because of the hockey; he went back because he loved flying."
Wherever he was stationed, it seemed that Mayer found a military team to play with, and it was a small news bit often. Here's one from the Medicine Hat Daily News on January 13, 1944: "Shep Mayer, who had a brief fling in the majors last season with Toronto Leafs, now is an R.C.A.F. pilot officer and has been playing this year with Pennfield R.A.F. station in New Brunswick."
While he was abroad, Mayer would drop the occasional line to Hap Day:
May 14, 1945
The way things are going now I should be able to get my discharge by next fall. I won't apply for it before then because I have a pretty good thing going right here. You know it is not very often that a fellow like me can pick up a $400 a month job without tax. However I was told I could get my discharge and I will do my best to do so. Could not get down to see you during the playoffs because I had too much work to do here. Hoping to hear from you, I remain
The Leafs arranged for the reinstatement of Mayer's amateur status, which was granted as per the NHL Bulletin No. 248, dated February 28, 1946: "Player Sheppard E. Mayer has been reinstated as an amateur by the C.A.H.A. And his name removed from the Special Reserve List of Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club Ltd."
While he was in the RCAF, Shep also met Marie Boyer, and they were married for 60 years, until his death on February 7, 2005.
"I was visiting the high school, and Shep came in to meet with his coach," she recalled. She didn't know that he had played with the Leafs, and he didn't talk about it much.
The Mayers became five as they moved around--Winnipeg, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, even four years in France.
"We did see quite a bit of the country, and at the time, we were bringing up three daughters," said Marie.
When Shep switched into the Department of Veteran Affairs, he had an office in Peterborough, and as district director, his territory covered all of northern Ontario. In 1985, the family moved back to North Bay in 1985.
His last years were not pleasant. At various times, Shep Mayer suffered through five different kinds of cancer, and then was hit with Alzheimer's disease; "That was the most traumatic thing in our lives, no doubt about it," said Marie of the half-dozen years where her husband was lost to them.
Battling the diseases, Shep Mayer was not able to attend his inductions into the Sturgeon Falls Hall of Fame and Hockey Heritage North in Kirkland Lake.
His obituary ends with a simple Latin phrase: Per Ardua Ad Astra, which translated means "Through struggles to the stars.""
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