Spend the better part of a working life writing about sports and most of it blurs together, the games and deadlines and heroes and villains and crucial issues of the moment, all subsets of same old, same old.
But there are also days that in memory remain singular and crystal clear.
In the fall of 2002, the Toronto Maple Leafs were holding training camp at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. Pat Quinn was their coach and general manager then, and a few months earlier had been behind the bench when Canada won a historic gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
The Hammer is our shared hometown, albeit from different neighbourhoods and slightly different eras. And so came a bright idea, which was supposed to be the beginning of a series that never was: Take sports figures back to their old stomping grounds and have them talk about it. A cabbie was summoned, told to turn on the meter, and then Quinn gave the directions to Mahoney Park—an east-end neighbourhood not far from the steel mills. There, as the tour continued past the site of the old Hamilton Forum, past the beer store where he used to successfully pretend to be 21, Quinn talked about whatever came to mind.
Many of us have a very strong idea of how the place we come from shapes us. Hamilton’s own particular brand of civic chauvinism (don’t laugh . . .) has to do with working-class identity, with toughness and authenticity, with being the gritty, unglamorous industrial cousin to the place with the shining bank towers down the road.
Pat Quinn in many ways embodied the place. His family lived on Glennie Avenue, a modest block of wartime housing (they renamed it Pat Quinn Way after the Olympic win). His grandfather on his mother’s side was the captain of a Hamilton Tigers team that won the Grey Cup. His dad, Jack, was a firefighter and the first president of the local firemen’s union. His sister became a cop.
“It’s not quite the same area [that it used to be],” he said that day. “But whoever came in took a lot of pride in their street. They took a lot of pride in their lives. But that’s what Hamilton is. To me, it was always a city that was full of pride. Pride in who they were. Pride in the work that they did.”
Quinn rowed, and played football, and played hockey—was a big, strong, slow-footed defenceman who eventually graduated to the most important team in town, the junior Red Wings. The coach there, Eddie Bush, didn’t like him from the start, and the parent Detroit organization thwarted his attempts to play at Michigan Tech, sending the school a $30 pay slip representing Quinn’s modest stipend, disqualifying him as an amateur. He wound up playing junior hockey in Edmonton instead, and winning a Memorial Cup with the Oil Kings, but never gave up on the idea of higher education.
“I don’t mean to knock the men who work hard,” he said. “They’re part of my life. I wanted to work hard, but in a different way. I didn’t want to punch the clock and slave. My uncle, my dad’s brother, worked in that steel mill, where he was a half-hour on, a half-hour off. He worked with big tongs and had to pull that steel around. And I thought, you know what, he’s a terrific man and a great father and worked hard all his life, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to punch the clock and then as soon as [I’m] done, run over to the pub and hammer down some beer and get some fluids back in.”
While playing in the National Hockey League—remember that the hockey culture in those days regarded any schooling beyond Grade 11 with suspicion—Quinn completed his BA over 10 years, attending five different universities. After his playing career ended—the final straw was a skateboard accident, of all things—he was lured into coaching by the Philadelphia Flyers, though that wasn’t ever his plan. After he rose to head coach of the Flyers, and then was fired, he went to law school, to give himself an option it turned out he never needed to exercise.
Quinn lasted with the Leafs for three more seasons (and the lost lockout year) after that conversation. He was fired the first time his Toronto team failed to make the playoffs—and after falling victim to an organizational power struggle. But for a short, unsatisfying swan song in Edmonton, that would be the end of his NHL coaching career.
He wasn’t always a pussycat, on the ice (just ask Bobby Orr) or with the media. He could play it a bunch of different ways.
But at his core he was always the guy from Glennie Avenue. If you knew that, you knew what you were getting, and you knew that it was real.
This column appears in the Dec. 8 edition of Sportsnet magazine