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The Legacy Of Pat Quinn

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

History does not record the name of the offending player but during the first days of Mats Sundin’s captaincy, a Maple Leaf was late for the bus leaving his hotel.

“Drive on” said Pat Quinn, from the coach’s seat, the first on the right.

“You never leave a man behind,” came a booming voice from the rear of the bus.

“Who was that?” Quinn asked an assistant.

“That was Mats.”

“My captain,” Quinn said, pleased at the show of loyalty.

Then he turned to face the front.

“Drive on,” he said.

Pat Quinn was a student and an admirer of human behaviour. He understood at that moment what he had in the noble and fiercely-loyal Sundin. He also knew the bus had to run on time.

You won’t hear a much more fitting epitaph for Pat Quinn than in those two words: Drive on.

Death took Pat Quinn last night at 71. The fact that Quinn, Chairman of the Board at the Hockey Hall of Fame missed the Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies 10 days ago signaled the degree of his illness. His family had wished to keep details private but he looked gaunt a year ago standing behind the bench of the alumni game at the Winter Classic in Detroit.

Still, the chilly air enlivened him that. He felt his roots and the journey that took him from the East end of Hamilton to St. Mike’s, the Leafs and then, eventually behind the bench and into the boardroom.

“It’s like a rebirth,” he said. “When you’re a kid you don’t want to go on to the ice. It’s so cold. And then you never want to come off. You spend your whole life and where do you end up…back on the ice again.”

Quinn’s winning percentage of .591 was the best in franchise history and he piloted Sundin-led teams into the Stanley Cup semis. John Ferguson Jr. fired him in 2006 after the only season in seven in which a Leaf team coached by Pat Quinn did not make the playoffs.

Quinn became one of a legion of coaches unable to get  the Edmonton Oilers from the quagmire, disappeared for a few years and then found another rebirth, this time in a lengthy stint with the Hall and its most important arm the selection committee.

Six-three and 215lbs he was invariably defined by his two most prominent features: he was big and he was Irish.

He used the size to gain the Leafs blueline for a couple of years where he famously knocked out Bobby Orr. He did time in Vancouver and Atlanta. Over nine seasons he scored 18 goals and accrued nearly 1000 penalty minutes but his career ended at 33 when he stepped on his daughter’s skateboard in the driveway of the family’s Atlanta home and ruined his ankle.

He turned to coaching and soon was behind the bench for the Flyers as the team reeled off a 35-game unbeaten string in 1979-80 that remains the league standard.

Between stints in Philadelphia and Los Angeles he earned a law degree and then landed in Vancouver as a GM. He defied the hockey world by drafting Pavel Bure a year before his fellow GMs believed him eligible and then imported another eventual Hall of Famer, Igor Larionov as the best ever 214th NHL draft pick.

Quinn despised the narrow view of the hockey world that former Soviet players were mercenaries by virtue of their birthplaces. He loved talent and twice acquired the great Alexander Mogilny, once for the Leafs.

“I got the guy everybody knows and everybody respects,” then Leaf-GM Mike Smith confided after hiring Quinn in 1998 and he was dead right that day.

The two elements, his size and lineage, carried Quinn through his NHL years. He was invariably tagged the big Irishman.

“To be Irish,” a US politician named Daniel Moynihan once said “is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” Being fired by Ferguson was a devastating blow to Quinn. So was being let go by the Oilers after one fruitless season.

That tragedy invariably befalls the joyous is infused in the marrow of the Irish. They are notorious for merrily carrying on until that moment. When that instant passes, as it will for everyone, the Irish left in the room toast their absent friends.

Those who will mourn Pat Quinn today include members of the 2002 Canadian Olympic party.

En route to leading the Canadian men to the gold medal, Quinn would stake out a seat in an outdoor compound of the Canadian athlete’s village.

There, athletes would seek him out, skiers and lugers and everyone in between, not for an autograph –many barely knew who he was – but for Ireland’s greatest export: talk.

Steve Omischl, a reigning world champion in men’s freestyle skiing aerials sat next to Quinn a few hours after he crashed his first jump and wound up 11th in the biggest event of his life.

“I felt like a loser and in a situation like that, you just need someone to listen. It was better than talking to our coaches,” he said. “All they wanted to talk about was how we screwed up.

He told me, ‘don’t worry about what other people think. All I had to worry about was doing my job. The two of us sat on the bench for an hour, just talking.”

Omischl would gain the podium in 32 World Cup events after that day.

“To be successful you have to drum up emotion,” Quinn once said. “I want to be a combination motivator, teacher, mentor and coach.”

A Pat Quinn press conference was a tutorial, patiently delivered and occasionally spiked with whimsy. Sometimes you could see him standing back, enjoying his part in the circus.

He made himself a player when it would have paid as much to be a goon. He made himself a lawyer when it would have been enough to have been an ex-player. He made himself a coach when it might have paid better to be a laywer and a GM when it would have been easier just to be a coach.

Those two words from the bus sum up his life: drive on. Regardless of the circumstance, Pat Quinn did just that.

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