1076 for publication November 28, 2014
Upon receiving an email advising me of Pat Quinn’s passing, the first image that came to mind was November 2008. He was leaning against the wall outside the Media room of Guelph’s Sleeman Centre, fully engaged in poring over the lineups for the OHL Storm’s game that night with the London Knights.
Being aware of his recent appointment as coach of Team Canada’s Junior team, I sidled over and quietly asked, “what horse are you picking in the third?”
As he glanced up the shaggy eyebrows arched and an orderly facial transformation occurred with the big familiar grin following. It was a signature smile I had first seen at the Leafs 1969 training camp.
Back then, as the newly appointed editor of Maple Leaf Gardens Magazine, I was playing catch-up that September, much like a few others. Among the group of rookies were general manager Jim Gregory, coach Johnny McLellan, head trainer Joe Sgro, and another player who became a close friend, defenseman Jim McKenny. After years of bridling under the dictatorial Punch Imlach, “Howie” was about to play his first full NHL season.
I was told by the previous editor, “get close to the players, this job will only get tougher if you don’t.” I took the advice as gospel and in that first season, many of those Leafs also became friends, were guests in our home, and in the time since I have often written about those close personal encounters in columns and books.
Pat Quinn was the subject of a chapter in “Into the Empty Net,” a book filled with stories of the fun side of hockey, and one that’s prominent is the famous hit on Bobby Orr. What most people were not aware of was the second devastating hit by Quinn on Orr only a month later. Allow me to edit down and condense that story of the “second coming.”
“Orr was motoring through centre with Paul Henderson on his tail… trying to clutch and hamper… and Orr had his hands full. Pat… lined up Number 4 and drilled him as he crossed the blue line… After the game, in the Bruins dressing room Red Burnett of the Star asked Orr, “how’s it feel to get hit by that dummy… again?” casting a little salt on Orr’s open mental sores.
“Only been hit twice like that in my life, Red. He can’t be that dumb,” Bobby answered carefully.
I’ve always admired Orr’s remark, and its basic acceptance of fact.
Back to the hallway in Guelph. After we’d caught up on the exploits and pastimes of James McKenny, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, and those long-time friends and teammates, I chided him about his next hockey task, fast approaching. “Aren’t you the guy they said didn’t handle young players very well?”
It was one of the face-saving attempts given by the Suits at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment when Quinn was fired as coach in 2006. That’s right, the “brains” of the day canned the same guy who had put the Leafs in the playoffs six of his seven seasons behind the bench.
But the “orderly facial transformation” returned and grinning he replied, “we’ll see.”
It meant the same man who took the Under 18 Team Canada to gold in 2008, was now in charge of the cream of Canadian teenagers. And we did “see” a gold medal 2009 World Junior Championship.
As someone who often writes about “the game,” it’s problems, it’s future, the waste of talent and talented people that it seemingly tolerates, it appears the good ol’ hockey game has suffered a terrible blow, and loss, with his passing.
Today, after all the words are broadcast and written, plus miles of video history have been shown, I have this feeling he’s wearing that mischievous Irish smile and looking down on us poor souls trying to figure out what to do now?
John Brian Patrick Quinn, Order of Canada, NHL journeyman player, brilliant coach, reluctant GM, educated game builder and game changer.
Pat, old friend, we’ll miss you. May the wind always be at your back.