It was a warm night in late May of 2002. I was 10-years-old and fielding ground balls at shortstop during a practice with my house league softball team. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a home playoff game that night.
And then one of the parents received a phone call.
“Pat Quinn is at the game! He’s coaching tonight!”
Those nine words were enough for my coach to cut practice short. We all had a hockey
game coach to see.
Let me set the scene.
Pat Quinn was the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002. The Leafs were in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes. Win that series, and the Leafs would play for the Stanley Cup.
The series was tied at two, coming back to Toronto.
Prior to Game 3, Pat Quinn was hospitalized due to an irregular heartbeat. With Quinn unable to get to the game, assistant coach, Rick Ley, took over. Toronto lost Game 3 in overtime.
Fast forward to the day of Game 4. Toronto was down in the series 2-1. A loss would be devastating.
Now, you have to remember, social media wasn’t around back then. We didn’t have Twitter updates every three minutes.
During the day, word on the radio and television was that Quinn would miss the game.
That night, I went to my softball practice knowing that I’d miss most of the first period of the game, if not all of it. No worries. I could tape the game on the VCR and catch up when I got home if I missed anything important.
Well, when that parent in the stands revealed that Pat Quinn was at the game, you should’ve seen people’s reactions. All of a sudden, none of us wanted to be there. We wanted to go home.
We all wanted to see Pat Quinn.
My coach ended the practice ten minutes later and everyone rushed home.
Again, we rushed home to see Pat Quinn stand behind the bench. We had all come to terms with the fact we were going to miss the first period. We were fine with that.
But to miss Pat Quinn make a triumphant return from the hospital? No chance.
And that story just begins to scratch the surface of how beloved Pat Quinn was.
Pat Quinn passed away on November 23, 2014. He was 71.
Yesterday, he was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the builder category.
I couldn’t be more thrilled.
He was the coach of my favourite hockey team when I was a kid. Seeing Quinn stand behind the bench, chewing his gum, is an image engrained in my memory for the rest of my life.
In my sister’s closet is an autographed photo of Quinn, still in the same condition it was when he sent it to her over a decade ago, after she wrote him a letter.
That was the kind of guy Pat Quinn was. A classy teddy bear.
When the Leafs let him go in 2006, I hated the decision. He was such a fixture, such a presence, such a rock, in the most difficult hockey market in the world.
I didn’t think he could be replaced. And in many ways, ten years later, he still hasn’t been replaced.
Two days ago, I finished reading a book written by Dan Robson. It’s called, “Quinn: The Life of a Hockey Legend”. It came out in 2015.
The tagline on the front cover reads, “If you didn’t already, you’re going to like and admire Pat Quinn after you’ve read this book – and if you knew him, you’re going to miss him even more.”
I only knew Pat Quinn from a fan perspective, but after reading about his life and the kind of person he was, all of my notions and expectations of who he really was, were exceeded.
He was a guy who worked for everything he got and wouldn’t back down from anyone. He was ready to walk away from his hockey career many times if he felt he was being paid less than what he was worth.
For ten years, he worked towards an economics degree. Ten years of bouncing around from city to city, team to team, and never wavering from his goal. Raise your hand if you would’ve given up on it. Quinn never did and finally received his degree.
By all accounts, Quinn was a man who truly cared about people. When the Leafs let him go, the staff at the arena were sad they wouldn’t get to see him anymore. He had taken the time to learn their names and he would remember things they told him.
I think we can all learn something from that and apply it to our own lives.
Pat Quinn was the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his impact reached far beyond the frozen playing surface with two nets at either end.
Everywhere he went, he left his mark, whether it was Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, or Edmonton. And that’s only the places he managed and coached.
Then there was the 2002 Canadian Olympic Hockey Team that won gold for the first time in 50 years. Pat Quinn was the boss behind that bench.
When the team assembled at centre ice for a picture, he pulled his daughter into the photo. Family always came first.
Pat Quinn never won the Stanley Cup, but he didn’t need to in order to secure his legacy as a legend of the game of hockey.
My softball team didn’t rush home on that warm night in May to see 40 players skate around the ice. My softball team rushed home to see a legend stand behind the bench.
Pat Quinn was that important us.