Carl Brewer fought a war few thought he had a chance to win.

Even some hockey players who wound up benefiting from his victory against the NHL over pension money had their doubts.

But the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman was just as tenacious off the ice as he was on it.

Brewer died Saturday at the age of 62. There is no official word on cause of death, but former Leaf Red Kelly said "I know he had heart trouble."

Brewer's funeral service was held Wednesday in a crowded downtown church that included family, friends and several former NHL players.

Among those in attendance were former Leaf teammates Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, George Armstrong, Eddie Shack and Bob Nevin as well as Leafs owner Steve Stavro, Leafs president Ken Dryden and NHL Players' Association Bob Goodenow.

While he'll be remembered as a solid NHL defenceman, Brewer's legacy will be the landmark lawsuit against the NHL that won players of his generation $40 million US in pension money.

"The alumnus owes a lot to him," said Mahovlich, now Senator Mahovlich, who sat in the front row of the church with Armstrong and Kelly and read a prayer during the 90-minute Catholic service.

Brewer started his battle with the National Hockey League Pension Society by questioning the practices of then NHLPA head Alan Eagleson and organizing players to enter into a lawsuit against the NHL.

"What he did for the pension, getting Eagleson, and saving our money -- he was very key in that," Kelly said after the funeral Wednesday. "He was like a terrier. Once he had in teeth into it, he wouldn't give up.

"He just kept going. A lot of players didn't think he knew what he was doing but he stuck with it and he was proven right."

In April 1991 Brewer was among seven former players, including Shack, Andy Bathgate, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Allan Stanley and Leo Reise, who filed a lawsuit in Canada against each NHL club, NHL president John Ziegler and the NHL Pension Society, claiming that the team owners had misallocated surplus pension money.

A judge ruled in favour of the players in October 1992 and said the NHL clubs must reimburse pension surplus money the league had improperly used since 1982. The NHL appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which threw the appeal out in 1994.

The NHL eventually reached a settlement with the players to pay out $40 million US from surplus pension funds.

Winning the civil battle ultimately brought down Eagleson, who served six months in prison for fraud and theft after pleading guilty to criminal charges.

"With the pension, he was just great," Shack said Wednesday. "I was in Minnesota just yesterday and a lot of the guys -- Tony Esposito, Lou Nanne -- they were saying how great it was they got that money and they thank Carl for all that."

The pension battle overshadows what was a successful NHL career for Brewer, a swift skater whose abrasive style agitated his opponents. He played 604 career games and had 25 goals and 198 assists.

He was a key member of the Leaf teams that won three straight Stanley Cups from 1961-62 to 1963-64. Yet he was never inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"He was a brilliant hockey player. He should be in the Hall of Fame," said Mahovlich, who won four Cups with the Leafs and two with the Montreal Canadiens. "He had so much talent.

"We won three Stanley Cups with him in the early '60s. I remember in '64 he played a very strong series to win the Cup for us."

Journalist Bruce Dowbiggin, who chronicled Brewer's pension battle, had the church assembly clapping with fervour during his eulogy when he stressed that Brewer belonged in the Hall of Fame.

"He would certainly be a worthy candidate," said Kelly, himself a Hall of Famer. "His playing ability and what he did ... he deserves it as much as anybody else."

Kelly still couldn't believe Brewer was gone.

"I was with him two days before (he died). He looked good. But I know he had heart trouble before because when I had my problem he was the first player to come and visit me in the hospital. He stuck his head around the corner and said: `You're in my bed!' I said `Carl, you can have it back.' He had been in the same bed there just a short time before."

Brewer's hockey career spanned 22 seasons during which he retired twice. He was a stalwart on the Toronto blue-line with Baun, Tim Horton and Allan Stanley during the Leafs' three straight Cups. He was named to the all-star team three times in his career.

"Carl was a strong and quick skater," said Kelly, who was traded to Toronto from Detroit in 1960 just in time for the Cup run. "He was a great piece of our team in those days."

Brewer's tumultuous relationship with Imlach prompted him to retire in 1965. He then fought to have his amateur status reinstated and played for the Canadian national team in 1966-67.

Brewer played in Finland in 1967-68 and returned to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1969-70 after his rights were traded in the deal that sent Mahovlich to Detroit.

Several acquaintances from Finland flew in for Wednesday's funeral.

Brewer spent two years with the St. Louis Blues before joining the World Hockey Association's Toronto Toros.

He retired again in 1974. Brewer hadn't played for six years when he made a comeback with the Leafs in 1980. Brewer played 20 games with the team that year before retiring for the third and final time.

By Pierre LeBrun