When I think of Pat Quinn, I harken back to the dark days of February, 1999. Quinn was just months into his tenure as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and I was equally green as the Maple Leafs beat reporter with The Toronto Star covering him.
I had found out not long before that my father was dying of cancer. Word somehow got to Quinn and one day during a post-practice scrum when I think he could see I was smiling on the outside and dying on the inside and was being cajoled by my colleagues, he pulled me into him with his big right arm and held me close for just a second. He never mentioned a word of it ever again, and neither did I.
Over the next couple of days, you’ll be reading a lot of wonderful things about Pat Quinn and all of them will be true. The Big Irishman with the enormous presence was a guy’s guy, a hockey man through and through. He publicly perpetuated the notion that he had nothing but disdain for the people in my business, yet took the time to give the most thoughtful and insightful answers to our questions. I have covered this game at all levels for three decades and I have never, ever met anyone in the game as engaging as Quinn.
I covered Quinn for The Star from the time he took the Maple Leafs job until his firing in 2006, which coincided with me leaving the daily newspaper to come back to The Hockey News. I don’t ever recall ever leaving an interaction with him thinking I hadn’t learned something about the game. He was a man of unwavering principles, fiercely protective of his players and fellow employees and could explain the nuances of the game with an eloquence and wit that was unparalleled in his industry.
Truth be told, Quinn and I had a running battle most of the time. He seemed to take particular glee in going after myself and Howard Berger, who covered the team for The Fan 590. (In his defense, we could both get a little annoying with our questions and unwillingness to take his answers at face value.) His favorite recurring line to me was, “It doesn’t matter what I say because you always just make it up anyway.” For years I would say nothing, then finally one day I came back with, “Well, Pat, the day you start signing my paychecks is the day I’ll start writing what you want me to write.” He never said it again.
And that was the thing about Quinn. If you said something like that to him and could back it up, he would show you respect. He didn’t have much time for referees or reporters and had his share of run-ins with both, but even if Quinn was angry with you or didn’t really care for what you were saying, there was never, ever any hint of disrespect. (Except for the time in the Nassau County Coliseum after a morning skate when he was sitting on a bench in a dressing room and looked up and blew cigar smoke in my face in response to a question. Then he laughed as I berated him for it.)
And one of the greatest things about Quinn was you never knew what kind of obscure reference was going to come from his well-read brain. One time after a practice, he referred to oft-injured Mikael Renberg as “Joe Btfpslk” and chuckled as the younger media members looked quizzically at him, the L’il Abner reference flying over their heads. After one playoff game, he remarked that, “you couldn’t find our forwards in our zone with a Norden bombsight,” would rail about “Hudson Bay rules” and often complain that his players, “wanted to pass the puck into the net.”
After a health scare in 2002, Quinn quit smoking cigars, lost weight and became much more conscious of his health. When I talked to him on his 60th birthday, I commended him on how great he looked, to which he responded, “Yeah, I feel like a regular Ponce de Leon.” Another time he was talking about a particularly egregious defensive gaffe and remarked, “There are only two places you shouldn’t do that – at home and on the road.”
As a player, Pat Quinn played 606 games and never mailed it in for a single one of them. After his career, he went on to law school (but never wrote the bar exam) and considered becoming an agent, which is laughable considering how he railed against them when he was in NHL management. As a coach, Quinn had his limitations. I would sometime marvel at how little he knew about NHL players, sometimes even the ones he had signed and were playing for him. But there are few who had a feel for the game and what his players would respond to better than Quinn did. That’s why his teams were so successful.
Pat Quinn never did win a Stanley Cup. He came close with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 when Bob Nystrom scored in overtime of Game 6 on a call that was clearly offside and 1994 when his Vancouver Canucks roared back from a 3-1 deficit to come within one game of beating the mighty New York Rangers. But he did manage to end Canada’s Olympic gold medal drought after 50 years and won gold medals both with Canada’s World Junior and Under-18 World Championships later in his career. As a GM and coach, he tutored and groomed the likes of Brian Burke, George McPhee and Ron Wilson.
A place in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder awaits him. I just wish we could get to hear his induction speech. It would have been great.