Remembering Pat Quinn and Viktor Tikhonov

Viktor Tikhonov, grandson of the famous Russian coach, laughed at the thought of his grandfather and Pat Quinn arguing which hockey system is better, then setting up a big game to settle the debate forever.

“I hope someone makes a picture of that,” he said.

The hockey world lost two giants in the last 48 hours, two proud coaches who lifted their countries to the greatest of international successes. Tikhonov was the stern face of Iron Curtain success. Quinn could be gruff and blunt, but showed (and allowed) much more warmth than Tikhonov ever did, or could.

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Of all the tweets and comments about Pat Quinn, Steve Sullivan’s stood out. “Hockey has lost a good man,” he wrote.

This is a compliment, but Sullivan is as stubborn as anyone you’ve ever met. He needed to be, breaking in at a time when the NHL was as prejudiced as ever against the small player.

Their Toronto breakup was tense. Four games into the 1999-2000 season, Sullivan’s family travelled to see the Maple Leafs in Ottawa. The team was 3-0, and he’d played every game. Sullivan was scoreless, but you know how much coaches hate tinkering with a winning lineup.

Evidently, Quinn wasn’t superstitious.

He made a change. As the story goes, Sullivan let Quinn know how angry he was. Days later, the Maple Leafs waived him.

“We couldn’t agree on where I fit on the team, but I always respected him as a coach and as a person,” Sullivan wrote Monday by email. “We did have a few conversations through the years and we spoke at length during last year’s Winter Classic.”

That would have meant a lot to his former boss.

A few years ago, Labatt’s invited me to host a Question-and-Answer session with the now-retired Quinn at a company event. Looking for some good intel, I called Glenn Healy, who relayed a story about Sergei Berezin. There was a time when Berezin was sick in hospital. The first person he awoke to see was Quinn, sitting by his bed.

Berezin told his teammates how shocked he was. He never would’ve picked his coach to be there. I used this at the event and Quinn became very emotional. He started to tear up. I’d never seen that side of him.

“Why was it so important to be there for him?” I asked.

“Because,” Quinn said, fighting back a full breakdown, “He was one of my guys.”

Tikhonov never showed that side, and some of his former players wouldn’t forgive him. I was too young to cover his on-ice skirmishes with Canada and the United States, but came across him on a trip to Russia a few years ago. At a game in Moscow, one of our guides tapped me in the media room. Tikhonov walked in unannounced. I moved towards him, wanting to meet and maybe get an interview.

The guide stopped me. “You don’t just walk up to Viktor Tikhonov.” He still put fear into everyone.

His grandson, born in the former Soviet Union, but raised in California as his father coached in San Jose, admitted his own nerves when he returned to Russia at age 15.

“I’d heard tons of stories from lots of players about him,” Tikhonov said Tuesday. “I was pretty intimidated the first time meeting him after such a long time away. He gave me a huge hug, the smile never left his face. It switched who he was in my mind, a caring, loving grandpa.

“I can remember one day in junior hockey, I had my worst game. We lost, it was my fault, I was responsible for a few of the goals. I walk into his office with all of his medals, he’s writing something in his notebook. He’d never yelled at me before, but I thought this is where he’s going to give it to me.

“He said, ‘What do you remember about the game?’ I told him everything. He said. ‘Good. Losing is sometimes more important than winning.’ He told me you learn more, you analyze better, you don’t make the same mistakes. What a life lesson.”

Quinn was the same with his family. In the famous on-ice photo of Team Canada’s 2002 Olympic Gold Medal team, there is only one non-player, coach, staff member or executive. It is his daughter, Kalli. Quinn loved that.

As a teenager, Tikhonov did get one glimpse of his grandfather’s notoriously tough fitness regimen.

“The one day I went to the gym with him, he starts with the jumping and the squatting. Five minutes in, I’m thinking, ‘What is this?’ Fifteen minutes in, I’m done, sweating, asking for water to take breaks as much as I can. He says, ‘That was the warm-up.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, let me off the hook.’ He said, ‘This is how much work guys put in.’ Either in the gym or on the ice, if you want to get to the next level this is how much work you have to do.”

For all of Tikhonov’s successes, we in North America remember him for one major disappointment. That’s very different from Quinn, whose legacy here is cemented by a Gold Medal victory in Salt Lake City.

That was the biggest smile I ever saw on his face. Before he did any interviews with those of us waiting outside the team party, he wanted to know how Canada reacted to the victory. When told about the spontaneous parades across the country, he broke into an enormous grin.

“That’s awesome,” was all he could say.

He could joke about Bob Nystrom being offside in 1980. He loved the 1994 Canucks more than any other team, I thought. As much as he enjoyed Toronto, there was always a sense of disappointment that his 2001 and 2002 clubs fell short of the final round.

In North America, Tikhonov was defined by “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 Olympic loss in Lake Placid or the incredible 1987 Canada Cup defeat, some of the greatest hockey we’ve ever seen. Viktor said he never asked about these experiences, but, after Russia’s great disappointment last winter in Sochi, his grandfather brought up the Miracle to him.

“I was upset,” Viktor said. “He told me it was going to be tough. The country is going to hate everyone, the players, the coaching staff, for a long time. You have to get through it. We crashed and burned in (1980) and we were eaten up for three years. You have to concentrate on work and everything will be okay.

“We won the World Championships and everyone felt better. He said, ‘See, you didn’t have to wait that long.’”

Quinn’s players are retired now. They spoke out beautifully on Monday. The tributes were really something. Viktor Tikhonov had a fantastic opportunity to honour his grandfather, a game.

His KHL team — St. Petersburg — was at CSKA Moscow, of all places. The team his grandfather made famous. There was no doubt he’d play.

“It was the hardest game to concentrate for in my career,” he said. “The are pictures of him everywhere, a special video, a moment of silence.”

His team lost, 5-3, despite two goals and one assist by Tikhonov.

“After the first goal, I looked up. It was for him.”

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