Some Words For Pat Quinn, Everyone’s Favourite Coach

You’re going to read a lot today about Pat Quinn, mostly from people in the know who had a relationship with him – the iconic ‘Big Irishman’ who was so beloved from coast-to-coast, you today have three cities (his hometown of Hamilton often overlooked but of course included) and hundreds of communities of fans staking claim to the thick-haired coach, the guy who led Vancouver, Toronto, and the entire country to hockey glory.

I got a text from a friend today, out in Etobicoke: “Pat Quinn died eh. Former lead coach. So sad”

My response was: “Former canucks coach too my friend”

Now, I quickly realized how stupid this was. It’s a very sad day, as my buddy acknowledged. And then there I was, grabbing Quinn’s legacy like it was something to be owned.

But consider it proof of how truly great he was that I, and many others, are playing tug of war over his resume today.

I was only ever a fan – a six-year-old first grader living in White Rock, B.C. when Quinn’s Canucks shocked the West and nearly shocked the hockey world in 1994, losing a hard-fought, never-ending spring finale to the New York Rangers and that bastardly Mark Messier. In so many ways, the Vancouver team Quinn created – with Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure and Kirk McLean – gave birth to the franchise he was just recently Ring of Honoured by. The Canucks have never been a clear-cut favourite, even when they were the clear-cut favourites in 2011, because the team and its fan base have only ever been comfortable coming from behind, only ever happy as the David instead of Goliath.

The Canucks’ identity depends on having someone bigger to beat up – whether it was the Rangers, the Toronto media black hole with its ‘Centre of the Universe’ attitude, or those gargantuan Chicago Blackhawks, who have been Vancouver’s greatest, only bloody, come-to-blows-with rival since 2009.

And we owe that all to Quinn.

His ’94 team was punching above its weight, out-kicking its coverage for those two or three months, from the end of a disappointing regular season to the conclusion of a heartbreakingly close Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

Likewise, Quinn was always up against somebody. He was all attitude and passion. That’s why you understand this Tweet below, even if you don’t know what it means.

He played just nine seasons in the NHL, and as a rookie he became the only guy to really ever tag the great Bobby Orr. (Perhaps fittingly, Orr would only ever play 10 seasons himself. They were great rivals, eventual legends in their own right, and both retired early after injury troubles – Quinn in 1977 and Orr in 1978.)

As a coach, he made an impact as a rookie as well. In his first year bench bossing in Philadelphia, he led the Flyers to a still-record 35-game winning streak and a Stanley Cup Final. He’d lose that one like he’d lose in 1994 – in New York state, the first time against Islanders.

In Vancouver, his Canucks took on giants. In Toronto, he helped the Leafs overturn a half-decade of mediocrity (no playoffs in 1997 or 1998, no series wins in 1995 or 1996) and led the Buds to two Eastern Conference Finals – in 1999, his first year in Toronto, and then in 2002.

In Toronto, Quinn made the jump as an icon, from a regional treasure in British Columbia to a national hero coaching Canada’s most popular team.

He’d never win a Presidents’ Trophy or a Cup with the Leafs – nobody has since 1967, in case anyone forgot – but he was close.

(NOTE: Quinn also played a major part in keeping Toronto at bay, when his Canucks beat the Dougie Gilmour era Maple Leafs in 1994’s conference final, when Toronto inexplicably played in the NHL’s West.)

Quinn’s Toronto teams – the plucky, Ottawa-slapping Leafs led by role players like Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker, goalies Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, and of course Hall of Fame captain Mats Sundin – may not have won hockey’s Holy Grail, but they left an imprint on the city’s fanbase, created a squad that can’t be forgotten and shouldn’t be pushed to the side just because it fell victim to year-by-year trendy surprises like the ’99 Sabres or the ’02 Hurricanes.

The young adult Leafs fans of today, the dudes aged 20 to 30, their Leafs were Quinn’s Leafs.

And of course, Quinn’s legacy was stapled to Canada’s. He coached a Mario Lemieux-captain Olympic team to a gold medal in 2002, the country’s first in half-a-century, as well as a first-place finish at 2004’s World Cup of Hockey.

And after his team flamed out in 2006 in Turin, after he was fired that same year by the Maple Leafs when Toronto missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, it seemed time had finally caught up with him.

Quinn was 63 in 2006. Coaching can be a young man’s game – well, a younger man’s game, taken over by swings in what the public defines as a winner and what complications and learning curves technology may bring.

You’ve no doubt seen that in the career you have. Computers make it near impossible for anyone fired in their twilight years to new work again – the companies hiring aren’t interested in investing in the new-age education of its senior citizens, and fair enough. Some people just don’t have the legs or the stamina or the ability.

But not Quinn.

Three years after his final season with the Leafs – after a Spengler Cup and a stint with Canada’s under-18 team – he was brought back to lead a team of teenagers at the under-20 World Juniors in Ottawa in 2009.

Because Quinn was a players’ coach, and the league always has room for players’ coaches. They understand people; they adore people. The know how to motivate, they know how to discipline, and they know how to squeeze talent and juice and jam out of everyone in their lineup.

Doesn’t matter if that player is 18 and green or 38, bitter, black-and-blue. Quinn could coach him.

And that team he had in Ottawa – the squad with John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Ellis, Cody Hodgson, and P.K. Subban – won its country its fifth straight World Junior gold medal, in the kind of dramatic fashion Quinn’s teams had always won by.

The ’94 Canucks had Bure’s overtime goal, Kirk McLean’s save, and Trevor Linden’s never-say-die everything. 15 years later, Quinn’s talent-rich Canadian club had John Tavares’s amazing pull, cock, and shoot, a fourth line of blossoming now-NHL stars Jamie Benn and Evander Kane, and Jordan Eberle’s heroics.

As only a fan, as just a six-year-old kid who thought the NHL revolved around the Canucks and the world revolved around Canada, as all stupid kids do with whatever they care about, I didn’t have to read testimonials or urban legends to know how great Quinn was, as a man and as a coach.

You just knew he was loved, because it was so obvious. And the reasons for it didn’t need to be explained… he was Pat Quinn. Everyone loves Pat Quinn. End of conversation.

He’ll most certainly be remembered personally by hockey fans in Vancouver and Toronto – he’s also the only thing those fanbases have in common, they only guy they can agree on – and he’ll be remembered by the people of Hamilton.

But he’ll most definitely be remembered by all Canadians, because people like Pat Quinn are the point. They’re why we watch hockey. They’re why we give so many damns every Saturday.