viva hojas viva


Hockey night for a guy from Havana (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Alexandra Studios fonds))

The first hockey game Fidel Castro ever saw, he had great seats at Maple Leaf Gardens. I thought. I mean, look at the photograph: Castro, right?

In 1959, in April, the newly minted prime minister of revolutionary Cuba did visit Canada. He was 32. Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Hamilton were on his original schedule. It was the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup final that spring, Geoffrions and Moores and Richards versus Bowers and Bauns and Mahovliches. It would have been some great hockey to see. Except that Castro was still in the United States when the Canadiens wrapped up the series on April 18 and lifted the Cup, so there was no hockey to see by the time he got up here. Not that he made it to Toronto, anyway.

In New York, the police and the FBI had information that hired killers were after him. “I don’t believe it at all,” was what Castro said. Five brothers from Philadelphia were implicated along with two other brothers from somewhere else. They’d already been paid. I’m not making this up. The Philadelphia brothers, who had criminal records for disorderly conduct and assault, were possibly riding in a black 1957 Chevrolet with a white top and Florida plates. The other brothers might have been in a dirty grey Cadillac from Michigan. Castro had 30 plainclothesmen guarding his hotel suite. “I sleep very well,” he said, “and don’t worry at all.” The brothers were named Scoleri — that was the next thing the newspapers came up with. Also that they were back in Philadelphia and also Las Vegas. The other gangsters were named David Rosen or Joe Stacher or Doc Harris, and may have been associates of the racketeer Meyer Lansky and — and they weren’t in New York, either. A man with a makeshift bomb was arrested at a speech Castro gave in Central Park. His name was John Feller.

The premier, the papers called Castro, and the bearded leader. In Toronto, he was supposed to visit the Massey-Ferguson plant to look at tractors. In Ottawa, he was scheduled to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister John Diefenbaker until the Diefenbaker looked at his calendar and found he didn’t have the time — maybe next visit? In the end, Castro cancelled on all but Montreal, where he swooped in for what was supposed to have been a 24-hour but, due to news of further assassins, ended up lasting just a few hours. The new murderers were on their way up from New York was the news the RCMP got as Castro was headed downtown from Dorval Airport in a 27-car convoy. So after a quick stop at to meet Mayor Sarto Fournier at City Hall, Castro was whisked back to the airport and put on his plane, which headed for Houston. Montrealers were glad to see him, while it lasted. Viva, they cried, and Hurray, Fidel. The premier, for his part, said, “There’s a Latin atmosphere here that I missed in the United States.”

None of which gets us anywhere on who it was there at the Leafs’ game. Records at the City of Toronto Archives don’t help: Cuban visitor watching hockey game, Maple Leaf Gardens — [between 1955? and 1970], is as much as the citation says.

A Cuban trade mission did land in Toronto in December of 1960, led by Dr. Regino Boti, Castro’s Minister of Economics, so maybe that’s who it is under the hat. He wasn’t looking for credit: he had $150,000,000 to spend on car and tractor parts, as well as machinery for sugar refineries. But in photographs I’ve seen of Dr. Boti, he’s older and jowlier and less bearded than his boss.

So — I don’t know. A Castro impersonator who somehow wangled his way into a Leaf game? That would be good. Or maybe Castro decided that no assassins could keep him from the Leafs. Though you’d think a subsequent secret visit to Toronto would call for some kind of disguise. And would there be photographs? But then I’ve probably said too much already. Best, if you don’t mind, that we just forget the whole thing.