‘It was like you were with Mick Jagger’: Friends and family share their fondest Hazel McCallion memories
Though Hazel McCallion impressed the world with her record-breaking 12 terms as Mississauga’s mayor, she was so much more than that.
A treasured community leader, gifted fisher and longtime hockey fan, McCallion died peacefully at home on Jan. 29. She was 101.McCallion’s record as mayor included skilful leadership during a 1979 train derailment which led to a mass evacuation of Mississauga. She was known for her quick wit and sharp mind, even well into her nineties.
The Star spoke with a number of people who knew McCallion beyond the political sphere. Here’s what “Hurricane Hazel” was like when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Hazel the celebrity
My wife and I were in the airport at San Juan, Puerto Rico. That’s not exactly around the corner.
We walked from the front door of the airport to our gate, and I’ll bet you, without a word of exaggeration, there were eight or nine people who stopped her to introduce themselves and say hello. In San Juan, Puerto Rico.
If I went somewhere with her, which I did very often, it was like you were with Mick Jagger. People stopped you everywhere, and it generally started with somebody saying something like, “I met you in 1984 at a dinner our organization was having, and you came and gave a great speech.”
She wouldn’t have a clue who they were because it had been decades, but she was always friendly, warm. If they wanted an autograph, they got it. And it didn’t go to her head.
She was just Hazel.
— Jim Murray, businessman and long-time friend
Hazel the daredevil
Hazel spent a lot of time at my cottage on Lake Simcoe. She was 97 when we took her kayaking; 99 when she decided to go on a tube behind the boat. She was up at dawn and always on the go. She got bored quite easily and just wanted to do things.
I remember a sea plane taxied in one day to the beach and everybody was asking the pilot, “Would you take me for a ride? Would you take me for a ride?” They were even offering him money. And the pilot said, “No, I’m sorry I don’t do that.” Then he look around, and saw Hazel. “Hazel? Hazel McCallion! Do you want to come up in my plane?”
And actually she did.
I didn’t think of it until they were taxiing away that, Hazel’s with me and she trusts me, but she just got on this plane, and she was 98 or 99 at the time, and I didn’t have a clue who this pilot is.
I had this mad panic, until the plane returned, that I had lost Hazel McCallion.
She was game for anything.
— Fran Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association who met Hazel 50 years ago through their mutual love of hockey. Rider was at Hazel’s side when she died Sunday.
Hazel the dog lover
I got her started on German Shepherds, and so that’s all we’ve ever had. I forget who named the first one Hurricane, but it was apropos because mom was called Hurricane Hazel. Hurricane was a great dog, and mom would take her everywhere she could.
The same when she got Missy (for Mississauga): Missy went everywhere; she’d even take her to the office sometimes. Unfortunately Missy passed two years ago. So then I found her Sauga, the next Shepherd, and she is a year and a half.
(Mom loved her dogs because of their) unconditional love. They don’t expect anything from you. They’re not trying to get anything from you or getting you to do them a favour. It’s just pure true love.
When mom was in the bed, Sauga just laid there by the bed, sticking her nose through the bars. Sauga was with her when she passed.
She is moping around now.
— Hazel McCallion’s daughter Linda Burgess. Sauga will go to live with her on her farm in Puslinch, Ont.
Hazel the music lover
I did a performance at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre, and one of the pieces I sang that evening was “Danny Boy.” I met Hazel that night (through a mutual friend). She came backstage and said, “I want you to sing that for my 90th.” And I said, “OK, I will book it now.” And I did.
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Last summer, I gave a private performance in my backyard. I just wanted to do something because, let’s face it, there wasn’t a lot of performing during COVID. I had heaters so we could stay warm. The dinner was on the deck, and then we put all the furniture on the grass, and the deck became the stage.
Hazel was sitting front and centre, in the garden.
I sang some of her favourite songs, and one of them was, of course, “Danny Boy.” I dedicated the song to her and as I sung, I stood behind her and had my hand on her shoulder. I don’t want to put too much emotion on it, but she certainly welled up and gave me a huge hug.
The story behind the song is about a father who has two sons. The first son goes off to war and dies. The second son becomes of age. And these are the words the father says to his son, and it’s about sacrifice and courage.
If anything, I think Hazel really fits those words.
— Singer Robert Pilon, who met Hazel more than 15 years ago and has hosted her several times in his Toronto home.
Hazel the champion angler
I met her on several occasions.
Even in her later years, she was so sharp, and she really did love fishing. The most time we ever spent together was on the boat, where it was quiet. There wasn’t so much interference, just a few media people.
She was a very good fisher. She landed the biggest fish of our trip, on a very heavy outfit … if Rob [Ford] weren’t holding her around the waist, she would have been pulled over the side. That fish was 17, 18 pounds, which is a pretty good-sized fish!
— Italo Labignan, fishing professional and editor of Canadian sport fishing Magazine
Hazel the hockey fan
I seemed to encounter her at every major hockey competition.
I first met her when I was 17. I met her at the Kitchener Auditorium. She was there for the Women’s World Championship in 1997. I was in the hallway — she came up and said, “Hi, I’m Hazel, and you’re a tough player. Keep playing tough.” That was my first encounter with her. Of course I didn’t know who she was at that moment, but I got to learn who she was pretty fast.
I remember very vividly coming back from the Salt Lake Olympics. She was at the airport to greet players and to greet the team. Always a major supporter of women’s hockey through the years.
She was just infectious, a real straight shooter. With Hazel, you may not have gotten the answer you wanted to hear, but you got the answer she was going to give you. Very passionate, just a fireball. It was amazing to see her.
I got to know her later in her life. She was already into her seventies or eighties when I would have met her. You’re just looking at this woman who is a mayor of a major city and she’s going up against all of these different politicians, taking on people, and in one way, you’re looking at someone that could be your grandmother. She was a force of nature.
— Hayley Wickenheiser, Hockey Hall of Famer and assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Hazel the powerhouse
I visited Hazel at her home about a week ago. She was still sharp as a tack.
She’s always been a booster of mine and I’ve been a booster of her’s. I first met her in 1981. I had arrived in Mississauga after wrapping up coaching the Colorado Rockies and she called me on the phone. She demanded I get to the Meadowvale arena at 8 a.m. the next day to see some young players. I said, “it’s Saturday I don’t usually do anything (on game day).” She said, “You be there!” I said, “Well, I better be there.” And so I went and I saw that it was girls, young girls, and I saw that they loved hockey as much as the guys loved hockey. I’ve been a supporter of women’s hockey ever since.
Her and Fran Rider, I think the both of them should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame because if it hadn’t been for those two, there wouldn’t be women’s hockey.
When I was part-owner and former coach of the Ontario Hockey League‘s Mississauga IceDogs Hazel liked to skate in the warm-ups for the opening games of the OHL. She’d say, “I’m going out.” And that was okay by me. But when Steve Ludzik took over coaching, he said to her request to skate, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” And she said, “Who are you to say what’s a good idea? You are telling me I can’t go out there and skate? Give me my skates, I’m going out there.” And she did. I think it was the Peterborough Petes playing — they didn’t know whether to go on the ice or not. But she was out there skating around. She was a good skater.
— Don Cherry, hockey commentator and former coach.
Anecdotes have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Janet Hurley is a Toronto Star journalist and senior writer covering culture, education and societal trends. She is based in Toronto. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aisling Murphy is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran
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