The Pat Quinn I never knew, but wish I had

The Hockey Central panel talks about the passing of Pat Quinn, but dives into how he affected players as people, not just on the ice.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, but in the interim they have employed four head coaches – Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn – who were beloved.

None won that elusive Cup. Kelly is still with us, a hockey treasure in this community, and the outpouring of affection that greeted the sad news when each of the other three passed was overwhelming.

Say what you want about Toronto, but the affection for four coaches who didn’t bring home a title says something very interesting about Toronto as a hockey city.

For 24 hours now, the accolades have been pouring in for Quinn, along with stories of his kindness and thoughtfulness, not to mention his ability as a coach. People loved the man. Sadly, I never really got to know that man, which is my loss.

The relationship between a columnist covering a team and the head coach can be a contentious one, and ours certainly was. For the final years he was in Toronto, we barely spoke. Actually, we didn’t speak. Again, my loss, as the writer-subject relationship that many in this market had with the eloquent Quinn wasn’t available to me.

We got along very well before he got to Toronto as fellow Hamiltonians. After he left, it got better again, and when he came to Sportsnet on a couple of occasions to do work in the past couple of years, we were able to socialize again, which was nice.

But while he ran the Leafs, both as GM and coach? It started on a wobbly basis and never got better.
He didn’t much like the way I did my job. I was very critical of the way he did his on many occasions. He didn’t think much of my opinion on hockey. I didn’t think much of his on journalism or the newspaper business.

He said once I got too personal. I asked him to name a specific incident. He couldn’t. I suggested we get together and try to work out our differences. He said he’d think about it. We never did.

We were just both too stubborn to find a way to make it work in the way others in the Toronto media who butted heads with him were still able to make it work.

That’s just the nature of the hockey business. Not everybody gets along. In 25 years of covering the Leafs, Quinn was one of only three head coaches I couldn’t work with effectively. But in death, we all try to highlight the very best in the one who has moved on to that rink in the clouds, and to me, Quinn saved his best hockey for his country.

At the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, he replaced his own Leaf goaltender, Curtis Joseph, with Martin Brodeur, a decision that cost him in a similar way that Steve Yzerman’s decision last winter not to include Martin St. Louis on the original Canadian Olympic roster cost him.

Yzerman, of course, played for the ’02 Canadian Olympic squad. Maybe, in retrospect, it was Quinn’s willingness to sacrifice his own NHL team’s interests for a shot at gold for his country that inspired Yzerman to do the same in Sochi.

Armed with a very talented roster in Utah, but one that looked perilously close to being unable to act as a cohesive unit, Quinn led a coaching staff that coaxed and prodded that group of athletes until they did pull together, in the end producing almost a perfect effort in the gold medal game against the United States.

There were his stints in Philly and L.A., Game 7 behind the Vancouver bench, two attempts in the Final Four with the Leafs and a world junior title, but to me, 2002 was Quinn’s best moment as a hockey man.

He’ll join Kelly, Neilson and Burns in the Hockey Hall of Fame soon, and that Salt Lake City coaching effort will be a big reason why. You need a big personality to run a team of Canadian hockey superstars, and Quinn certainly did.

We didn’t have to get along for me to see that. But I wish we had.