The day the Flyers released Pat Quinn, Paul Holmgren cried, not something players do any longer over a coach, if they ever did.
‘I was devastated,” recalled Holmgren. “I remember speaking out publicly.
“He had a way of handling all of us. The players [that management] thought Pat wasn’t handling, we should have done a better job handling in the room.
“Behn Wilson and Ken Linseman pushed the limit, probably. But I didn’t think it was an issue. Pat had presence, had direction and we always had a good knowledge of how we were going to play the game,”
Quinn, who knew what had made him tick playing nine NHL seasons with three teams, took his sense for what made players tick to four stops after Philadelphia, winning a fifth-best ever 684 games and an Olympic Gold medal for Canada before he died Sunday night in Vancouver at age 71.
"It is a sad day for our sport. Pat Quinn was an outstanding hockey coach. He had an excellent career as a player, coach, general manager and hockey executive... Over the years, Pat and I shared many great memories of his time in Philadelphia. He will truly be missed by all of us. I'd like to send my condolences to Sandra and all of Pat's family and friends. You are all in our thoughts and prayers. - Ed Snider
His first coaching gig, which began with a career-ending fall off his daughter’s skateboard and his hiring by the Flyers as an assistant in 1977 to replace the late Barry Ashbee, was in Philadelphia. And that performance may have been his best.
When he was promoted from Maine to replace Bob McCammon after 50 games of the 1978-79 season, Quinn had just that half-season of AHL experience behind a bench, but he had a superb feel for a team’s pulse. A big guy with a big presence, he calmed the choppy waters left from the excitable McCammon and went 18-8-4 the rest of the way. The year ended with a second round defeat to Shero’s Rangers, but the next season, Quinn coached the Flyers to a 35-game unbeaten streak, revenge over the Rangers, and to within two games of the Stanley Cup.
He won 141 games and five playoff series in three-plus seasons before a second-half slide in 1981-82 cost him his job with just six games remaining. In making a reverse sixth of Quinn for McCammon, who had won a championship in Maine, Snider predicted “I wouldn't be surprised if someday Pat Quinn came back to haunt us” and he did. Quinn’s Leafs beat the Flyers in six games in the first round of the 1999 playoffs.
“Nicest man in hockey,” he was called by ex-Flyer Murray Craven while playing for a Quinn’s second Stanley Cup finals team, in Vancouver. One of the smartest, too.
“He could motivate, he could change things tactically, he had every asset of a coach,” said Holmgren.
Everything, in fact, except in Philadelphia much of a defense but his teams achieved regardless. The 1979-80 Flyers — called by Holmgren a “dog’s breakfast” of holdovers from the Cup teams, a new nucleus of high picks, (only one of which Brian Propp, because a staple) and some recycled minor leaguers, had some speed and their young coach was determined to use it. Quinn turned the forwards loose to chase the puck, to crisscross both on the attack and leaving the zone, while urging the defense to get up into the play.
“He wasn’t long in experience but he didn’t come in unprepared,” Bob Clarke recalled yesterday. “So much of the coaching in hockey at that time was play good or get bleep from the coach; when Pat came in he was interested in helping each player individually.
“Either he or Herb Brooks changed the game tactically. Brooks’ teams circled back some to form the attack, ours was more straight line, but both introduced more motion, not the old wings on wings. Our players left over from the Cup teams needed that change. And we went to the finals with a team that probably was middle of the road.”
For 35 magical, games, from October 14 to January 7, there was no gap between the Flyers forwards and the defense, only in credibility about what they were doing.
“You look at the travel, the schedule, the balance of the league, it’s impossible,” said Scotty Bowman after his Sabres, in second place overall, went down to the Flyers for the third time during the streak, in game No. 35, “But it’s not impossible, they’ve done it.”
The Flyers (25-0-10, no regular season overtime in those days) rallied from one three-goal deficit, eight two-goal deficits and came from behind in the third period on six occasions.
Their power play percentage was barely in double figures the whole streak and the goaltending by journeymen Phil Myre and Pete Peeters was, at best, solid. There might have been one game, No. 27 by Myre in a 1-1 tie at Madison Square Garden, where the Flyers needed to be bailed out by one of their goaltenders.
They were so deep in energy and scoring that Rick MacLeish was playing on the fourth line. And their confidence became impenetrable. Win No. 29 in Boston, which broke the record, was a 5-2 masterpiece under immense pressure.
“As we went along, they felt they needed me less and less,” Quinn recalled years later in Full Spectrum. “Our practices were taking on the quality of self-destruction. The night of game was really the only time I was involved.”
“I pull out the picture of that team and ask, ‘How did we do that?’”‘ With that team, with that defense, there was no reason to think we could even put a 10-game streak together”
It wasn’t done with mirrors. Frankly had a lot of those Flyers looked at themselves, they would have known it was unsustainable. But Quinn revived the careers of Reggie Leach and MacLeish, plugged in three career minor leaguers on defense and his team went to the finals before, battered and bruised, it went down in six hard games to the budding Islander dynasty.
“Pat and Freddie Shero were the two best coaches I ever had,” said Bill Barber Monday. “I don’t think he let things get away from him that last year; he was a players’ coach but the reality if it all was that by then we were a pretty average team.”
The Flyers, whose defense was in tatters after Bob Dailey’s ankle exploded on an icing touch-up early in the 1981-82 season, lost to the Rangers in the first round after Quinn’s firing regardless.
“I doubt if he was the only one involved, but it was one of the worst decisions Keith Allen ever made and he made very few,” said Clarke.
Quinn graduated from Widener Law School before he was hired by the Kings. The Canucks made him coach-GM a few years before Holmgren got his management baptismal with the Hartford Whalers. ”That was a big step for me and talking to Pat helped me through that a lot,” Holmgren recalls.
The smoke coming out of Quinn’s cigar never was intended to hide his purposes, said the Flyers’ president.
“He had a great presence,” said Holmgren. “Everyone in those meetings knew the intelligence factor was high and that he wasn’t self-serving.
“When he spoke, people listened. His motivation always was for the good of the game.
“There were a lot of times in my life that he showed up. I ran into him at the Minneapolis airport when my Mom passed away in 2000. I was devastated, and he had strong words of encouragement for me.
“He was awesome for me as a coach. It was great to be the first forechecker. But he also was a strong influence on my life.”