At 6’3” and having once knocked the stuffing out of Bobby Orr with a devastating body check, Pat Quinn was often referred to as “the big Irishman”. I preferred to think of the former Canucks player, coach and general manager as “the loveable Irishman”. During our exchanges, I found him delightful, open, even charming, not caring a whit that I wasn’t a regular hockey guy. He simply loved to talk hockey. The world today is a drearier place, now that Quinn has lost his long, gruelling fight with cancer.
I remember sitting with him in the empty stands of the Tokyo arena where, in 1997, the Canucks opened the NHL season against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. At the time, he was the team’s general manager, and I was a hockey nobody, assigned by the Globe to cover the game only because I was based in Asia. Yet Quinn could not have been more courteous and patient answering my questions. I most recall his passionate defense of NHL-sized rinks over the bigger ice surface of international hockey. “There is no better spectacle in the world than fast skating and use of the body within a confined space,” he told me. “When the rinks are larger, you lose that.” Since then, I called him several times for different reasons, and his demeanour was always the same. Friendly and direct, he was a reporter’s dream. If you couldn’t get a good quote out of Pat Quinn, you’d be better off selling shoes.
When the Canucks made their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011, I called him up for a story on Nathan LaFayette’s heartbreaking shot that hit the post late in Game Seven, the last time Vancouver made it to the finals in 1994, with Quinn as coach. The Rangers held on to their one-goal lead to win the Cup. Quinn described it this way: “Nathan was suddenly there in front. He made a great shot. Unfortunately, the goalie’s best friend happened to be in the way. The next thing you know, we were lined up, shaking hands.” He understood the bitterness fans still feel today over LaFayette’s failure to score. “As a fan, you’re full of hope that your local guys are going to do well. Yet they still don’t have that championship. So you remember things. And in this case, it’s the ‘what if’ you remember. Because you have nothing else.”
I had a lovely chat with Pat Quinn just several months ago. Although clearly not in the best of health, he quickly came to the phone, once his wife told him the reporter wanted to ask about Gino Odjick, who was caught up in his own battle with a terminal illness. Quinn was Gino’s first NHL coach, and he had great memories of a player he came to love. Over the course of our lengthy talk, however, Quinn also revealed much about the kind of coach and person he was, too. He insisted that Gino had to be more than a mere enforcer. “My personal philosophy in coaching was: ‘I wouldn’t carry a goon. You had to play the game, or we wouldn’t play you.’” Gino embraced the challenge. “I didn’t want him to be one of those players chasing around and starting fights, or being a show-off, as if that’s the only reason they were on the ice. He had to contribute, and he did,” said Quinn. “I told Gino: ‘If there’s any reason to look after one of your team-mates, you deal with it. But I’m not going to tell you to go out and get this guy.’ That’s not something I believed in. I said: ‘Gino, just be a hockey player. All the guys who could fight, they also had to play.”
He also recounted with relish the abiding, “odd couple” friendship between Gino and superstar Pavel Bure, which persists to this day. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar players on the ice, but both initially felt estranged from their team-mates and sought each other out. “I’m not a softie, but I do enjoy stories like that,” Quinn told me. “Eventually, they were accepted. That’s when we started to become a really strong team. It was ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. You don’t win without it.”
Finally, of course, there was the storied Gino Odjick penalty shot. When Gino scored on Calgary netminder Mike Vernon, the resulting roar from the fans nearly lifted the roof off the Pacific Coliseum. It was as if the Canucks had won the Stanley Cup. Quinn was behind the bench, embracing every moment, as team-mates, fans and Gino kept celebrating. He prolonged the bedlam by refusing to put a new line on the ice for the next face-off. “I held the guys on my bench, so he would get even more applause,” Quinn told me, his grin almost visible over the phone. “Finally, the referee came over and said, ‘Get a line out there.’” At the end of the interview, there was an awkward catch in the voice of the man with a reputation for gruffness, the man who cold-cocked Bobby Orr. He confessed, softly: “Gino’s one of those players that I could easily say that I came to love. You know?”
Last night, at Rogers Arena, as the strains of Danny Boy faded aways, the cheers for the late Pat Quinn seemed to go on forever. We came to love him, too. (The Canucks’ video tribute is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMOiDU4KFqk&feature=youtu.be and Tom Hawthorn’s usual thorough recap of Pat Quinn’s life is here: https://benchedathletes.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pat-quinn/ )