We frequently hear the term “a players’ coach.” It is part of the modern sports lingo, and what this designation means is that a team’s coach—or in baseball’s case, manager—understands athletes, realizes that respect must be extended to be earned, and operates with a modicum of yelling, banging of fists and creative tension.
Tommy LaSorda, who enjoyed a long reign in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dugout, explained his methods thusly: “Contented cows give better milk.” In other words, if players dread reporting for work every day, whether for a practice or a game, the mood of the locker room inevitably suffers, as will their performance. Sports seasons are all marathons, men in uniform are human beings, and martinets tend to have a short shelf life. (Then again, of legendary Vince Lombardi, Henry Jordan volunteered, “He treats us all the same…like dogs.”)
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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When Billy Reay was behind the bench for the Blackhawks, I don’t recall ever hearing the label “players’ coach.” But as we approach the 35th anniversary of his 500th victory—by far the most in franchise history—it occurs to me that’s exactly what he was: a firm yet fair leader who never threw one of his charges under the bus in public or the media, even when the bus stalled.
“Billy was great,” recalled Tony Esposito, who joined Reay’s Blackhawks in 1969, built a Hall of Fame career as a goaltender, and now is an ambassador for the defending Stanley Cup champions. “Billy left you alone to do your job, and if you did your job, that was all he expected of you. He didn’t overdo it. He didn’t have a lot of meetings just for the sake of having meetings. And as a result, guys wanted to play for him, which is what a coach is supposed to do, right? He’s there to get the most out of your ability, and he didn’t do it by screaming.
“Billy also had the knack of knowing when to come down on a team and when to let up. If the team was struggling, he would back off. If we were losing, he didn’t make up a lot of rules or call guys on the carpet. It was when things were going well, when we were winning, that he might let you know he was around. And even then, he didn’t have to say much.”
Indeed, Billy’s nickname was “X-Reay,” a testament to his piercing glare that, combined with a moment of searing silence, conveyed instant messaging on a player who had erred... or a reporter who asked a dumb question. The “Cagey Mentor”—as Dennis Hull regularly and fondly referred to Reay—suffered no fools, and when a young beat writer for the Chicago Tribune occasionally printed his middle name (Tulip), Billy wondered why.
As per Esposito’s remarks, Reay absolutely timed his raids according to his team’s fortunes. The Blackhawks were on a binge in 1975—a 15-game unbeaten streak (six victories, nine ties) matching a 1967 franchise record—when players gathered in a hotel watering hole. Hotel bars were considered off-limits, because that’s where management relaxed. But Reay didn’t drink, and besides, the squad was clicking and the hour was late. Surely, Billy had retired for the night. Lo and behold, in jacket and tie, Reay walked into the establishment, looked around, then turned and simply walked out. Not a word was uttered, not a word was necessary.
|Billy Reay (right, with Bobby Hull) was known as a cagey mentor, and a firm, but fair hand in the Blackhawks' locker room. |
“I remember that,” said Esposito, chuckling. “Philadelphia, wasn’t it? He just wanted us to know that he knew where we were and what we were doing. And, of course, after he leaves, we’re all wondering the same thing. What if he comes back in another hour?”
Reay played eight seasons at center for the Montreal Canadiens, who won two Stanley Cups during his tenure. He replaced Rudy Pilous as Blackhawks coach in 1963 and oversaw some terrific teams, although he never won a Cup in Chicago.
Not unlike his players, Reay rued the 1971 finals, when the Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead in the series, and a 2-0 lead in Game 7, only to lose to the Canadiens 3-2. After Bobby Hull left for the World Hockey Association in 1972, casting a pall over Chicago hockey fans, Reay masterfully held the team together and directed it to the 1973 finals—again, against the Canadiens, who prevailed in six games.
On Feb. 26, 1976, in Los Angeles, Reay registered his 500th victory with the Blackhawks, a 6-2 rout of the Kings. He won 16 more games before being dismissed in December of 1976. The roster was thin, attrition had taken its toll, and president Bill Wirtz’ gamble on free agent Bobby Orr had failed because the legendary defenseman’s knee was shot. But Wirtz, out of loyalty, reached out to Reay, who became a regular fixture watching games. Reay passed away at age 86 in 2004; Denis Savard, who never played a minute for him, was among those who attended the funeral. Such was Billy Reay’s legacy and impact on the Blackhawks.
He was a one-man show in those days. Coaches didn’t have assistants or traveling secretaries or public relations types in tow. Reay handed out boarding passes at airports when the Blackhawks took commercial flights. He was in charge of per diem meal money. And he conducted business with quiet dignity, always dressed immaculately from fedora to the toe, forever aware that players dealt with family pressures, nagging injuries and daily issues like anyone else.
“Billy dealt with us like men,” said Jim Pappin. “He communicated one-on-one and to a group, whatever it took. I never heard a bad word about him from the guys. We knew we were lucky to play for him.”
Billy Reay did not endear himself to media members, particularly from other cities. Perhaps that is one reason why he is not in the Hall of Fame. If only you took a vote among players who laced up their skates for him. Or if you took the voite of at least one rookie reporter who was assigned to cover the Blackhawks in 1968 and learned how a professional coach did his job: with class, no bells and very few whistles.