Tim Hortons tugs at hockey fans’ heartstrings in Wayne Gretzky ad

Before he became The Great One, the hockey star was an autograph-seeking fan

Published On
Dec 11, 2019

Editor's Pick

Kudos to parents who save everything. Even napkins. 

That’s one takeaway from a new heartwarming spot from Tim Hortons. The Canadian coffee and donut chain’s newest spot begins with a man opening a box, his hands shaking as he finds a memento. Then, it recreates a moment in a young boy’s life in Brantford, Ontario, in 1968. The boy heads to a Tim Hortons restaurant with his mother to get the autograph of its famous owner, former NHL player Miles Gilbert "Tim" Horton. Trouble is, he has arrived without something for the hockey-great-turned-coffee-shop owner to sign. No matter. Horton quickly devises a solution, putting pen to napkin as retold in “The Autograph,” which comes from Gut Miami. 

Soon, the audience learns more about the boy. His life on the ice goes from childhood practices in the yard to, ultimately, the NHL. As the spot progresses the audience sees real-life footage of the boy, who, spoiler alert, is Wayne Gretzky.

There’s even a quick shot from his emotional 1988 press conference confirming his trade the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings. (Perhaps use that as a cue to grab a tissue.)

Back to that man with the box. It’s Gretzky’s father, Walter, who still had the napkin Horton signed for his boy 51 years ago. The two look at the napkin while sitting on a couch, Gretzky’s photos lining the wall behind them.

“Wayne Best Wishes Tim Horton,” the napkin reads.

“I would watch him play on TV and every night I went to bed thinking about being like him and playing hockey on TV,” Gretzky said of Horton, in a statement from the brand. “There have been many moments in my career that I will never forget, but the moment I met Tim in that restaurant and he signed that napkin for me, it inspired me to believe that I could become a professional hockey player like him.”

Gut worked with Canadian directors Jon and Torey on the spot. Work included recreating a 1960s-era Tim Hortons, even replicating the napkins used then and the sign outside (they used to read Tim Horton, not Tim Hortons). According to Tim Hortons, more than 68,000 Canadian boys auditioned to play young Gretzky in the spot. 

Fittingly, the spot will first air in Canada on TV during this month’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championships. On Jan. 15, Tim Hortons plans to sell limited-edition $17.99 tumblers featuring Gretzky’s autograph and number 99 at locations across Canada.

The brand could use not just the morale boost this spot is likely to provide, but a business boost. System-wide sales at Tim Hortons declined in the recent third quarter, while parent company Restaurant Brands International had stellar showings at its other chains, thanks in large part to the chicken sandwich at Popeyes and the Impossible Whopper at Burger King.