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Richest in more than money

Jets co-owner Thomson at fan's northern funeral

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For those who knew he was coming, the appearance of the richest man in Canada at a funeral reception last week in a whistle stop of a northern Manitoba town was treated with the kind of respect the famously private Winnipeg Jets owner David Thomson had shown the mourning family.

It was kept as quiet as possible.

But no one -- especially not a man who oversees the Thomson Reuters news agency -- could expect the story of the touching tribute he paid to a 26-year-old Jets fan could be kept from the mainstream media for long.

There were too many witnesses at Thursday's funeral for Les Mulholland.

And too many unanswered questions about why the Toronto-centred Thomson would travel to a place near the geographic centre of the province and more than 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg to honour the young man even the Jets organization didn't know, except maybe as a part owner of a season ticket.

First flying to Thompson for the standing-room-only funeral where Les's boyhood hockey buddies carried his casket.

And then travelling down the road south an hour to sit with Les's parents in their home at Wabowden, population 700.

All for a young man Thomson had only known since he and his True North business partner Mark Chipman brought the Jets and the National Hockey League back to Winnipeg last year.

So why would the third Baron Thomson of Fleet -- someone from the Everest-like peak of the Canadian establishment -- care so deeply about a recently hired young Stony Mountain Institution guard who was a resident of the country's socio-economic base camp?

In hopes of finding the answer, I contacted the people -- besides Thomson himself -- who one would think might know.

Les's father and mother.

I reached Lyle and Darlene Mulholland on Sunday afternoon as they were driving from Thompson to their son's apartment in Winnipeg.

What made the trip, and the conversation, even more difficult was they had learned of Les's death even as they were grieving last year's unexpected and still-under-investigation hospital death of their 29-year-old daughter Maxine Mulholland.

Les and a pal had travelled to Germany for Oktoberfest in late September.

It was there, alone on a Saturday night in the streets of Munich, that Les reportedly strayed into the path of a tram.

At first, as we spoke over the phone Sunday, both parents wanted to talk about who their son was.

How he had always wanted to help people. At first, he wanted to be a Mountie. Then he went through a series of justice-related jobs before settling seven months ago for a position as a guard at Stony Mountain.

"To serve and protect is all he ever knew, all he ever did," his mother Darlene said.

They spoke of the innate kindness and sense of responsibility that prompted him to return to Manitoba from Alberta when his single-mother sister Maxine was struggling with her health -- both mentally and physically -- and he felt the family needed his help.

The parents continued to talk about Les's caring nature -- and how it was returned in the end by his boyhood hockey buddies holding a marathon hockey game to help the family with the $20,000 it cost to bring his body home.

"He was a wonderful young man," his father said.

"I was amazed at how many lives he touched."

There was no mention of David Thomson being at the funeral.

Until I brought it up.

And even then, it was clear that Lyle and Darlene Mulholland didn't want to talk about that.

They acknowledged Thomson was at the funeral, though, and that later he came to their home in Wabowden.

"He was a very, very kind and nice man who attended our house," Darlene said.

When I asked Lyle Mulholland what Thomson said, Lyle Mulholland said he didn't notice.

"There were too many tears in my eyes," he said. "I was blind. It was amazing how many lives he touched."

Including, apparently, David Thomson's.

But why Thomson?

"I don't really want to comment on anything," Lyle said. "I don't want to go into any detail. My son was very private about his friendships."

This much the parents also confirmed, but only after I offered the answer first:

The friendship started with their son writing to Thomson -- apparently through the Jets office -- to thank him for bringing the National Hockey League back to Winnipeg.

Thomson wrote back.

And from there, apparently a kind of pen pal relationship developed.

By that time, Les and about half a dozen pals had managed to purchase two season tickets, but when Thomson heard only two in the season-ticket syndicate could go to the first game, he invited Les to be his guest in his private box for that historic game.

Or so the story goes.

The parents say they don't know that, but they do know he was at the first game.

Later Les would take each of his parents to games, where, Darlene and Lyle said, they sat in the stands.

There is another part to the story I was told by a source who was at the funeral.

That when Thomson learned Les was heading for Europe and Oktoberfest, he offered to look after the cost of the flight.

The parents told me they know nothing about that.

And, when I attempted to reach Thomson on Sunday through the Jets, there was no reply, which wasn't surprising, of course.

Given Thomson's private nature and the Mulhollands respecting that, we may never know precisely why the Winnipeg Jets owner and the Winnipeg Jets fan bonded the way they did.

But I have a theory.

I suspect, in a sense, David Thomson may have seen something of the every fan in Les Mulholland -- maybe even something of himself -- that the team owner chose to embrace when the young man from a whistle stop in northern Manitoba made the effort to thank him personally for what he did for the city and the province.

It's probably not as simple as that; nothing ever is, least of all the well from which we draw relationships.

This much I do know.

David Thomson is more than simply the richest man in Canada.

He's one of the kindest and most thoughtful, too, judging by what he did in his own quiet way for Les Mulholland and his family.

And who would have thunk these days that anyone would be saying anything like that about an NHL owner.

Any owner.

But then David Thomson isn't just any NHL owner, is he?

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2012 B1

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