Superstars never intimidated Pat Quinn.
That much was evident when he laid out Bobby Orr with one of the most devastating and celebrated open ice hits in NHL history in 1969.
Right in the Boston Garden, no less!
Orr circled behind the Boston Bruins net with the puck and headed up the ice along the right boards with a Toronto Maple Leafs checker in hot pursuit. The only problem was, Orr had his head down. So when the Maple Leafs 6-foot-3, 215 pound defenceman Quinn, a player of limited ability, but with the heart of a warrior, came charging toward him, Orr didn’t see him. Didn’t have a chance to react.
It remains to this day one of the most celebrated body checks in NHL history. And it wasn’t Quinn’s last run-in with the game’s top stars.
In 2002, behind closed doors where nobody could see him, Quinn loudly tore strips off the game’s best players; members of Canada’s Olympic hockey team. Among them were Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Paul Kariya, Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk and Joe Sakic.
This underachieving group of superstars was well on the road to another Olympic letdown and Quinn would have no part of it. He wasn’t hired by Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky to be their friend.
Nope, Quinn’s mission was simple: Lead Canada to a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Anything less was unacceptable.
“There’s no question we all wanted that gold medal because it had been 50 years (1952 in Oslo, Norway), but in talking with Wayne about why we went with Pat as our coach, it was because he had that presence and ability to deal with a group of star players,” said Bob Nicholson, who was president of the Canadian Hockey Association in 2002. “We had some great assistant coaches in Wayne Fleming, Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin, but Pat had the final say on everything.”
Quinn is as an authoritative figure and he has never been long on patience. So when Canada got off to a rotten start in the tournament, losing the opener 5-2 to Sweden before edging Germany 3-2 and then tying the Czech Republic 3-3, Quinn laid down the law…rather loudly.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said Pronger with a laugh. “He came down pretty hard on us.”
Whatever Quinn said had the desired effect. Canada responded with a 2-1 win over Finland, blasted Belarus 7-1 in the semi-final and thumped the host United States 5-2 in the gold medal game.
“I think Pat, having been a player, a GM, president and coach, certainly had the background to handle a lot of different personalities and kind of throw them into a blender.” Pronger said. “You could say we kind of bombed in 1998 in Nagano losing in the shootout and then not showing up for the final game against Finland for the bronze medal. We had a lot of leaders in our room and Pat’s job was to get us all on the same page.”
Quinn was a bruising defenseman who won the Memorial Cup in 1963 with the Edmonton Oil Kings before embarking on a 14-year pro career, nine of which were in the NHL with Toronto, Vancouver and Atlanta.
Upon retiring because of an ankle injury, Quinn got into coaching and was named the NHL’s coach of the year twice, in 1980 and 1992. He was behind the bench of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1979-80 when they constructed a record-breaking 35-game undefeated streak.
Quinn is the only coach in Canada to guide teams to gold medals at the Olympic Games, the World Under-18 Championship and the World Junior Championship. For good measure he also guided Canada to a gold medal at the 2004 World Championship.
Quinn last coached in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers in 2009-10 and has recently been working as the chairman of the board for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Unfortunately Quinn was ill and unable to travel to this year’s Hall of Fame ceremonies.
The big hit on Orr in 1969 was certainly one for the ages, but Nicholson believes Quinn’s best work was done behind the bench in Salt Lake City.
“When Pat coached he just had such a presence,” Nicholson said. “He was the leader in the dressing room. We had great players, but he was a guy that delivered the message on behalf of the coaching staff.”