Remebering Pat Quinn

Whenever he walked into a room, Pat Quinn commanded a larger-than-life presence. Now that he has been taken from the world at age 71, the hockey world feels an absence that is just as enormous.

He never got to hoist the Stanley Cup, coming within a game in 1994 while behind the bench of the Vancouver Canucks. But he was a champion with Team Canada at the international level: 2004 World Cup of Hockey, 2008 Under-18’s, 2009 World Juniors, and of course, the 2002 Winter Olympics.

And, as a person, he was a gentleman and a class act to the fullest degree.

Sure, his persona was intimidating. Take it from me, a freelance reporter who walked into Air Canada Centre at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season completely awe-struck by my surroundings. Having to ask questions of a towering individual who once decimated Bobby Orr in a playoff game felt like a huge challenge. I spent my first few games covering the Leafs getting my feet wet, observing the dynamics of the coach’s media conferences, essentially piggybacking off my colleagues’ questions.

The first time I ever participated in a post-game address, I asked Quinn about an inactive player, Alyn McCauley, who at the time was also Toronto’s NHLPA player representative. I threw a ‘softball’ question, if you will, merely inquiring about McCauley’s status. Quinn answered me back: “Alyn’s still sick. We were hoping to have him back in the lineup tonight. But, it must be all that Players’ Association food!”

The reply elicited a few laughs in the media gallery. And it put me at ease.

Until, the next time I talked to him.

That was when he was doing an impromptu scrum at a game-day skate. I made the mistake of asking him whether one of the Leafs wingers (I don’t even remember which one) should be bumped up to play with Mats Sundin. Or, as I blasphemously suggested, “to play on the first line.” Quinn always hated numbering his lines, emphatically reminding anyone who’d listen that, while Mats Sundin was clearly the team’s best player, his wingers shouldn’t necessarily be referred to as “first-line wingers.”

With a laugh, he played me like a two-dollar banjo, going back and forth asking “Is Sundin’s line the ‘first’ line? Really, are you sure?” I tried to save myself, but the laughter of the Leafs PR staff, and one or two other scribes in the mini-scrum made it impossible.

I never used that term again.

Quinn led the Leafs to a pair of conference finals; 1999 and 2002. During his eight-year tenure with the team that included four seasons as general manager, he’d snipe with the media. “All you nincompoops…” was his favourite way of telling the fourth estate to…well, do something that – when taken literally – is anatomically impossible.

I was not immune to the hostility. Once I asked him to comment on a Winnipeg Free Press story that suggested that Ed Belfour had suffered a season-ending injury. He looked at me with disgust, curtly answered my question “Is the story an exaggeration?” with a blunt “Yeah, I’d say so,” before moving on. And, not to take it personally, when another writer asked him the same question a couple of days later, Quinn exasperatedly replied “Some nincompoop writes a story, and you guys all buy it…” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the drift.

I think he knew that post-game address after the Leafs ended the 2005-06 campaign would be his last one at his post. With the Leafs failing to make the playoffs after the year-long lockout (who knew it would be the beginning of such a long drought), winds of change were swirling. After the last question, he knowingly nodded to everyone and said “Thank you all.” Days later, he was fired.

The last time I saw him was in April 2013, at the Women’s World Championships in Ottawa. Quinn was at a game-day skate with his daughter Kalli, who was director of female hockey for Team Canada at the time. I brought up the fact that Kalli and I had been grouped together at a Hockey Canada golf tournament held the previous summer at Angus Glen in Markham, Ontario. Looking at Kalli, then at me, he quipped “Judging by the looks of the two of you, I’d say you didn’t play very well!”

Not only did he have a sense of humour, he had an astute knowledge of my lack of skills, despite never having seen me swing a club!

When I covered the Hockey Hall of Fame inductions last week, word was circulating that Quinn was not well. Sundin, on the red carpet, answered almost as many questions about Quinn as he did about posthumous inductee Pat Burns.

“I thought Pat Quinn was very similar to Pat Burns as a coach,” Sundin said. “He had a presence in the dressing room that demanded respect, and he had a way of talking and getting the guys ready for each game that really got the best out of the teams that he coached.”

Reflecting on the phone call he received from Quinn saying that he’d been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2012, Sundin said “We were both crying at the time, a little bit, on the phone!”

Players, colleagues and reporters alike have all remarked about the well-deserved respect that Quinn commanded.

His credentials are impeccable: an NHL record 35-game undefeated streak with Philadelphia 1979-80. Two appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals (1980, 1994). Two Jack Adams Awards (1980, 1992). The last man to coach a Leafs team to a playoff series win (2004). The last man to coach a World Cup of Hockey victory (2004), or a Team Canada World Junior win (2009). And, one of only two men to coach at least 1,400 NHL games while playing in at least 600, joining Hall of Famer Al Arbour.

Farewell Pat. The measure of you as a person is far greater than your legendary accomplishments behind the bench.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo