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Joe Crozier ready for Winter Classic

by John McGourty
Although Joe Crozier should have a foot in both camps, but he'll be rooting strictly for the Sabres in Tuesday's AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic Game.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. --It's amazing the people you meet in a frozen parking lot in Buffalo in the dead of winter, like Joe Crozier, the former coach of the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

That Joe Crozier, the one who contested the 1949 Memorial Cup, coached or played on 12 championship teams, the point man on Jean Beliveau's Quebec Aces' power-play unit, the architect of the “French Connection” line and a good friend to many, many people in hockey.

"You have to consider yourself a lucky, lucky man to be able to spend 60 years in hockey," Crozier said. "I still work as a consultant to Larry Quinn, the managing partner of the Sabres and former president of the team."

Crozier showed up three days before the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic Game between the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium to buy some cold-weather gear for himself, his son, Rich, and grandson, Joe. They'll be in the stands Tuesday, New Year's Day at 1 p.m. ET for the game broadcast on NBC in the United States and CBC and RDS in Canada. The Winter Classic also will be heard on NHL Radio.

The Crozier family should have a foot in both camps, but Rich says they'll be rooting strictly for the Sabres.

"Bonnie and I raised two fine sons," Joe Crozier said. "Rich, a special-education teacher and the hockey coach here at Amherst High School, and Greg, who was in the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization and now is in the pharmaceutical business in Boston."

Crozier, 78, grew up in downtown Winnipeg during World War II, playing on a corner lot when he wasn't delivering newspapers or ice or shoveling coal onto trucks.

"I was one of eight kids and there wasn't a lot of money in those days," Crozier recalled. "We used to stand outside the ampitheatre and ask the junior players for sticks so we could play."

Crozier played two seasons for the Brandon Wheat Kings, advancing to the Memorial Cup in 1949 against the Montreal Royals, a team that included future Montreal Canadiens' stars Dickie Moore and Donnie Marshall. An overtime tie in Game 3 forced an unprecedented eighth game in Winnipeg that Brandon led, but the Royals exploded for four late goals.

Crozier then played a couple seasons with San Francisco and Vancouver in the Pacific Coast Hockey League before manning a point over eight seasons for the Quebec Aces, where he began a long association with Punch Imlach. Crozier was made player-coach of the 1957-58 Aces when Imlach signed with the Boston Bruins to manage the AHL Springfield Indians.

"I played three seasons with Jean Beliveau in Quebec until they turned the league pro so the Canadiens could sign Beliveau," Crozier recalled. "We played together on the power play. I'd go behind the net, get the puck, pass to him and he'd go up ice and score. I'd get the assist. Jean is a great friend and we just talked a couple of weeks ago. He helped me learn French went I went to Quebec City and we hung out together. We'd be walking down the street and store owners would spot Jean and ask us in. If we went into a menswear store, they'd give Jean a suit and me a tie. I went to his wedding.

"A few years later, I was coaching Willie O'Ree in Quebec City. One of the best penalty killers ever. The other teams couldn't take the puck away from him. He was a great skater and he is a great person."

Crozier was playing for the AHL Rochester Amerks when he got called up for five games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his only appearance as a player in the NHL. He retired after the next season and began coaching the Charlotte Checkers. He then returned as coach to the Amerks, winning three Calder Cups in five years.

Those Amerks had tremendous rosters with Gerry Cheevers in net, Al Arbour, Don Cherry and Larry Hillman on defense, a top line of Gerry Ehman, Bronco Horvath and Dick Gamble and forwards Ed Litzenberger, Pete Stemkowski, Wally Boyer and Red Armstrong.

"Al Arbour was my defense partner on the Aces and then we won Calder Cups together," Crozier recalled.

"Then I sold the Amerks to the Vancouver Canucks of the old WHL," Crozier said. "I didn't want money, I wanted stock. Later, I offered (former NHL President) Clarence Campbell a million dollars to admit us to the NHL, but he wanted four million. I just waited for the phone to ring and another job. It rang."

Crozier took a job coaching Cincinnati in the AHL, but it didn't last long. Imlach had a heart attack while coaching the Sabres and recommended Crozier. He got the Sabres into their first Stanley Cup Playoff berth in 1973, behind the strong play of the "French Connection" line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin. Dave Dryden and Roger Crozier gave the team outstanding goaltending.

"Punch hired me to replace him when he had heart attacks in Buffalo and in Toronto in 1980," Crozier recalled. "We were excellent friends, couldn't have been closer. I was a pall bearer at his funeral. I also got to know Eddie Shore back then and he was wonderful to me.

"I get credit for putting together the French Connection, but the idea came to me in Quebec," Crozier continued. "I had three black forwards, O'Ree, Stan Maxwell and Herb Carnegie and put them on a line together and the crowd went wild. They loved it. So, in Buffalo, I had the three French kids and thought; 'Let's see how it works.'"

Perreault was the star of that line, ably assisted by two fine players in Robert and Martin. Because they didn't win a championship, losing the 1976 Stanley Cup to the Philadelphia Flyers, their legend hasn't carried forward as well as the Montreal Canadiens, Flyers and Boston Bruins, the dominant teams of that decade. But the skills of those players shouldn't be forgotten. Some people would be surprised to hear Crozier favorably compare Perreault to Beliveau, but who was in a better position to judge?

"They were very different kinds of players but they were both tremendous players," Crozier said. "I couldn't choose between them. Either one could go from one end of the ice to the other, make everyone else on the ice look foolish, and score. They're both fine men, too."

After leaving the Sabres, Crozier coached three years in the World Hockey Association and then returned to the AHL, with Moncton. He wasn't there long before Imlach got sick again and he was hired in Toronto. Crozier coached a declining Maple Leafs team for two seasons. He was dismissed after losing in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs both years.

But Crozier's phone rang again. He coached the Kitchener Rangers to win the 1982 Memorial Cup, a team that included this year's Hockey Hall of Fame inductees Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis, as well as Brian Bellows and goalie Wendell Young.

"I told you I've had a wonderful life in hockey," Crozier said. "I've told them here four times that maybe I should quit and they ask me to keep working, if I want to. I talk about all those old hockey players that none of the young kids remember, but I also love to watch young players like Sidney Crosby, a nice hockey player, and that young man playing for the Oshawa Generals, John Tavares. It's so nice to know that those types of people are carrying the load now. It's nice to know that we have young guys like that, here now or coming up soon, who will be great hockey players for many years to come.

"Of course, I'm going to the Winter Classic game," he emphasized. "We're going to have over 73,000 hockey fans here on a beautiful winter afternoon to see a great hockey game. I wouldn't miss it and I know a lot of our fans feel the same way."

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