By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 27) – It was brief; simple, yet spellbinding TV. As it does with everything related to its signature property, TSN absolutely nailed coverage of Tuesday’s announcement from the Hockey Hall of Fame that Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic, Adam Oates and Mats Sundin will be inducted in the Class of 2012.
Profoundly striking this long-time Maple Leafs observer was two of the game’s most regal and respected figures, standing beside one another, sharing the announcement. To the left on my TV screen was Jim Gregory, about whom no person has ever said a disparaging word; so determined and courageous in his grievous health struggle of recent years. To the right was Pat Quinn – the Big Irishman – somehow appearing more robust and youthful as he ages. The distant hockey connection was immediate: Gregory, general manager of the 1969-70 Maple Leafs that deployed Quinn as a rugged, sophomore defenseman. Here they stood – more than four decades later – jointly telling the hockey world of its latest immortal figures.
Several hours afterward, my Blackberry rang: Quinn returning – as always – a phone message. It is difficult to imagine a member of the Hall’s Selection Committee having shared such an elemental bond with three of four inductees. Quinn coached the Vancouver Canucks during Bure’s halcyon scoring years and nearly celebrated a Stanley Cup championship with the Russian Rocket in 1994 (Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the final). Having authored the last good stretch of results for the Maple Leafs, Quinn coached Sundin here in Toronto from 1998 to 2006 – twice advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals (1999 and 2002). And the Irishman leaned heavily on Sakic during his most triumphant hour: a gold medal victory for Canada over the United States on American soil at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
PAT QUINN DURING HIS LEAF YEARS ALONGSIDE MATS SUNDIN.
“Today was their day – not mine – but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t tickled-pink to make those phone calls,” Quinn said as he prepared to fly home to Vancouver. “To hear the unfettered excitement in the voices of these legendary players was just incredible. It was a privilege for me to be a part of.”
Quinn’s coaching imprint was all over Tuesday’s announcement. “To be honest, I never really wanted to coach in the NHL during my playing days,” he admitted. “It was Fred Shero that changed my outlook on the game and got me thinking how badly I wanted to help bring out the best in others. Ultimately, if my players did well, I did well, and my biggest contribution was nurturing the leadership qualities of the young men I coached. The three inductees this year that I was affiliated with all had the intrinsic desire to be the absolute best they could be. I don’t know Adam Oates quite as well but I’ve heard all the same things about him. These were tremendous athletes and competitors; it was my fortune to be among them.”
MATS SUNDIN IN TRIUMPHANT LEAFS POSE.
Sundin and Quinn formed a scintillating dynamic in their seven seasons with the Blue and White. “There is no question that Mats ranks among all the great captains in Leafs history,” said Quinn. “He was the most unselfish player I ever coached in the NHL. I can’t remember too many players – let alone stars – that showed as much excitement when a teammate scored as when he scored. Mats didn’t care about points… oh, he wanted to pile them up because he knew we’d be successful that way. But, it was never about him. Rarely, did I have the privilege of coaching a player that cared so deeply and emotionally about his teammates. That’s what made Mats so great.
“I remember a time when the media was clamoring over the fact I didn’t utilize Mats for as many minutes-per-game as other star players around the league,” Pat continued. “It wasn’t a matter of being stubborn; I could have easily played him five minutes more each night, but I felt he was most effective in that particular role. Even though he answered a lot of baited questions from reporters, not once did he complain to me or make a fuss in any way. He was the ultimate professional.”
GUARANTEE THAT JEAN BELIVEAU WASN’T SMILING AT PAT QUINN DURING THIS TORONTO AT MONTREAL GAME IN 1969. THE GREAT CANADIENS CAPTAIN HAD LIKELY BEEN JARRED BY THE BRASH TORONTO ROOKIE – LATER TO MANAGE AND COACH THE LEAFS.
Quinn said that coaching Sundin was the “easiest” task of his years behind the bench. “I know I’m sounding like a broken record but Mats didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He had a rare and enviable combination of talent, competitiveness and humility. In that regard, he and Joe Sakic were clones. You didn’t have to ask anything of either man. It was automatic they would provide you every ounce of energy and effort they could summon on a given night. Coaching doesn’t get simpler than that.”
Though he spent merely two weeks in the company of Sakic at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Quinn claims it was the most wondrous fortnight of his career.
“We had a lot of giant egos on that 2002 team but our leadership group of Joe, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux held everything together,” Quinn said. “I was sitting with Wayne Gretzky the other night and we both began to marvel at that Olympic squad [Gretzky was executive director; Quinn, head coach]. We had one, lousy practice before the tournament started and that group kicked it into overdrive after losing the first game [to Sweden]. The players just wanted to win that tournament. We had a good group again in 2006 [at Turin, Italy], but it simply wasn’t ready to win. The ’02 squad wouldn’t allow itself to lose. It had superb, uncompromising leadership.
“Early in the tournament, I put Joe on a line with Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagne – neither of whom had accomplished much to that point in their careers. Another player in Joe’s position might have been upset but we won the game that night and he actually thanked me afterward for creating that unit. It went on to become our best line in the 2002 Games.”
JOE SAKIC, SECOND FROM RIGHT IN MIDDLE ROW, CELEBRATES WITH CANADIAN TEAMMATES AFTER GOLD MEDAL VICTORY OVER THE UNITED STATES AT 2002 WINTER OLYMPICS IN SALT LAKE CITY. PAT QUINN GRINS FROM MIDDLE OF THE TOP ROW.
If Quinn has any regret, it evolves around his Maple Leafs not winning the Stanley Cup. “I thought we had three teams that could have gone all the way – particularly, the 2002 club,” he said. “But, the Los Angeles Kings proved this year what needs to happen for a club to win the championship. Or, more specifically, what cannot happen. Sure, there has to be a level of talent and commitment and you have to get on a roll as a team. But, you also have to somehow avoid key injuries. And, how do you do that? In 2002, I think we had seven guys out of the line-up. Mats was hurt; Darcy [Tucker] went down; I was using minor-league players to fill in. To their credit, we got to Game 6 of the Conference final [against Carolina]. But, I’m all but convinced we would have won the whole shootin’ match that year if we were healthy.”
DARCY TUCKER BATTLES NEW YORK ISLANDERS IN OPENING ROUND OF 2002 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS. LEAFS WOULD WIN SERIES IN SEVEN BEFORE INJURIES BEGAN TO MOUNT.
CONGRATULATIONS TO PAUL…
NICE MOVE BY THE TORONTO CHAPTER OF THE PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY WRITERS ASSOCIATION TO ADD MY OLD LEAFS TRAVELLING PAL, PAUL HUNTER, TO THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS/AIR CANADA CENTRE MEDIA WALL OF FAME.
A TERRIFIC WRITER, PAUL COVERED THE LEAFS FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS BEFORE THE TORONTO STAR RE-ASSIGNED HIM LAST SUMMER. HE JOINS A PRESS BOX DISPLAY THAT ALREADY INCLUDES SUCH DISTINGUISHED COLLEAGUES AND ASSOCIATES AS FRANK ORR, JOHN IABONI, RICK FRASER, BOB STELLICK, STAN OBODIAC AND MATT FROST – THE LATTER, A MEMBER OF THE LEAFS MEDIA RELATIONS STAFF WHO DIED SO TRAGICALLY AND PREMATURELY OF CANCER AT 33 YEARS OF AGE IN THE SUMMER OF 2005.
PAUL: YOU’RE A GREAT GUY AND I’LL NEVER FORGET (NOR WILL ROSIE) THAT PARALLEL-PARKING MANEUVER YOU PULLED IN BANFF WHEN LEAFS WERE THERE IN 1998. CONGRATS, MY FRIEND.
PAUL HUNTER, PHOTOGRAPHED BY TORONTO STAR COLLEAGUE DAVID COOPER.
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