A friend of mine once remarked that there were only two kinds of people: those who got the cosmic joke and those who didn’t.
Pat Quinn, the new coach of the Edmonton Oilers gets it, more than mayors and surgeons and dentists and car dealers, housewives and accountants I have known.
Whether he is or isn’t an elite coach may always be open to question. He won Olympic gold in 2002 with the best team, did the same for the world juniors but he never got a team to the Stanley Cup finals.
Twice his Leaf teams reached the final four but there is no real crystalline moment in his career when you can say his hand on the tiller was the key element in victory.
That’s partially because of the way he coaches. Quinn had plenty of experience as a general manager and he seemed to manage as much as coach his teams. But with a responsible veteran Leafs’ core that included the likes of Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas, a heavy hand would have been counter productive.
Pat Quinn walked and talked like a teacher, but because you were never able to see the teaching other than the odd blast at practice, you had to judge for yourself what he was imparting, That left only the record, which in itself was very good but mostly shaped by longevity. Do you see what I mean? A meaningful assessment of Pat Quinn the coach was like peeling an onion. Just when you got through one layer…
What Quinn gave the Maple Leafs and by extension the city, was not so much a swagger but a noticeable bearing. It made perfect sense that he was from hardscrabble Hamilton, that he was dipped in Leafs lore at St. Michael’s, that he played for Punch Imlach. He had a legacy as a Leaf and as a hardrock, when Mike Smith hired him in 1998. With his shock of white hair and his formidable size, he was meant to be a leader, a boss.
Pat Quinn, even at 66, is a spectacular confluence of the old and the new. He can talk to you about flattening Bobby Orr or about the nuances of the neutral zone trap and why the defensive scheme was destroying hockey. His was the pragmatism of those who have lived a long life and therefore taken back much of what they said. He quoted Mark Twain “If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, than I shall not go,” and then gave up smoking after a heart ailment.
Quinn was often a terrible obstructionist to the media. I have always regarded him as the father of the lower and upper-body injury, a term designed to limit information exclusively to the paying customers and their agents. Players know when and where other players are hurt.
He was exasperatingly and some would say fatally loyal to a long cast of suspect performers, from Robert Reichel to Jonas Hoglund to the unlamented Aki Berg. His continued allegiance to assistant coach Rick Ley and his unwillingness to revamp his coaching staff was an oft-cited example of his intransigence.
But he knew what he was and what he was about and he stayed in the game by working with kids when coaches with half his qualifications would have taken a pass.
He humbled himself because he was secure, as resolute and mirthful and secure as anyone I have ever met.
Pat Quinn gets the cosmic joke, that precisely because life is arbitrary and unfair and capricious the things you love matter more, not less.
That’s what the Edmonton Oilers have bought as their new coach, a worldly man, steeped in the values of the game. He is like everyone else, only more so.