Remembering the Big Irishman

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Nov. 24) — I don’t mind telling you I’m pretty torn up today.

As I was leaving my apartment for a doctor’s appointment, my BlackBerry came to life. It was 11:02 a.m. — a text from my friend and former Leafs–TV reporter Bob Harwood informing me that Pat Quinn had died. The news, though not entirely unexpected, hit me like a sledgehammer. I’d been told recently, without confirmation, that Quinn had pancreatic cancer, arguably the most grave form of the heinous disease. So, I knew he was in trouble. Still, there’s no preparing for the word “death.” I learned that nearly 19 years ago, when cancer took my mother, Sandee. And though I’ve not–since felt such overwhelming anguish, my heart sank in a familiar way this morning.

My first inkling of Quinn’s plight occurred just more than a year ago — Nov. 2, 2013. I was sitting in the press box at Rogers Arena in Vancouver prior to a clash between the Canucks and Maple Leafs. On the ice was a pre–game ceremony to honor the electrifying former Canucks shooter, Pavel Bure, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Among those present was Quinn, Bure’s coach when Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup final. From my perch beneath the arena girders, Quinn was entirely recognizable — standing tall with his husky mane of grayish hair. Then came a shock. The giant video–board above center ice flashed a close–up of Quinn. He was pale, drawn, and had lost a considerable amount of weight. Three chairs to my right sat Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun. We instinctively glanced at one another. Mike and I had covered countless games when Quinn coached the Leafs between 1998 and 2006. We had grown to love and respect the man. Now, without question, something was wrong.

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PAT QUINN (RIGHT) — ALARMINGLY THIN AND PALE — SITS NEXT TO FORMER CANUCKS PLAYER GINO ODJICK ON THE ICE AT ROGERS ARENA IN VANCOUVER, NOV. 2, 2013.

Later that night — in a hotel across from B.C. Place Stadium — I checked Twitter. It was immediately clear that people watching the Bure ceremony on Hockey Night In Canada were also alarmed at Quinn’s appearance. I sent Pat an email, saying that I hoped the video–board image at Rogers Arena had somehow been a mirage. Assuming, however, the opposite, I wished for him a treatable illness and a full recovery. I told him — speaking, I felt, for many — that I loved him.

Nearly two months later, on the afternoon of Dec. 31, I was walking along the frozen pitch at Comerica Park in Detroit prior to a friendly between the Leafs and Red Wings alumni. The current Toronto and Detroit clubs were an hour down the road in Ann Arbor, preparing for the 2014 Bridgestone Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. Having been introduced to to the sell–out crowd of more than 40,000, wearing a Leafs jacket and toque, Quinn approached me and extended his beefy right hand. “I want to thank you for your email… I just haven’t been saying much to anyone,” he told me — the implication of serious illness unmistakable. If I required further evidence, it was Quinn’s appearance. He looked, quite frankly, like a jar of mustard; his face, hands and eyes terribly jaundiced. A sure sign of liver or pancreatic disease. Maybe both. I asked Quinn if he was feeling okay and he said, “yes… for now.”

It was the last time I ever saw him.

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As I sat in the newsroom at The FAN-590 on a muggy, June evening in 1998, a colleague of mine said, “Howard, Line 1 is for you.” On the phone, returning my call, was Pat Quinn, relaxing at his home in Vancouver. Speculation had been rampant for more than a week that Quinn would be hired by Ken Dryden and Mike Smith as coach of the Leafs, succeeding the deposed Mike Murphy. I rolled some tape and Quinn confirmed that his Atlanta–based agent, Dick Babush, had been in contact with the Leafs and that — yes — he was interested. I then rehashed a moment from 14 years earlier, during the 1984 NHL Draft at the Montreal Forum. While roaming the floor, I had come upon Quinn, who was rumored to be among the replacements for Mike Nykoluk as Toronto coach. Having revered Quinn during his brief time in the late–60’s on the Leafs blue–line, I told him I was hoping he’d get the job.

“So am I,” he smiled before walking away.

When I wondered — on tape and on the record — why he had not been hired in ’84, Quinn’s reply was both shocking and humorous. “I was told that Harold Ballard didn’t want a ‘Mick’ behind the bench.”

“But, Pat,” I countered, “Ballard wound up hiring Dan Maloney to coach and his best friend in the world was King Clancy — both proud Irishmen.”

“Well, I suppose Harold considered me a bigger ‘Mick’ than them.”

It was my introduction to the world of Pat Quinn.

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MY PHOTO OF PAT QUINN ARRIVING FOR THE 2011 HOCKEY HALL OF FAME INDUCTIONS.

I remember it, to this day, as the most shameful episode in my career.

During his early years as the Maple Leafs coach — and later general manager — Quinn had a terribly acrimonious relationship with the Toronto hockey media. He brought with him from Vancouver (having been coach of the Canucks) a monstrous chip on his shoulder and clearly assumed those covering the Maple Leafs would act as virulently toward him as the reporters he left behind in B.C. There was no basis for such a claim as Quinn’s hiring by the Leafs had been universally lauded here in town. Still, he arrived in full battle mode and proved to be ridiculously hostile during his initial four years with the hockey club.

I had, speaking politely, a rather limited appetite for Quinn’s act and we frequently quarreled. A good day at the office would be Quinn bellowing at me on tape over something, or referring to me as “four-eyes” (yes, I wear glasses). I assured that such niceties would be replayed over and over during afternoon sportscasts at The FAN-590.

Paradoxically, Quinn could provide some of the most insightful commentary about the game. Much like others that project a grumpy image, he was a delight to chat with in a one–on–one or small–group setting. In large scrums, however, you had to be ready for anything.

One afternoon, following practice at the Air Canada Centre, Quinn emerged from the Maple Leafs dressing room to confront the usual assortment of TV cameras, microphones and notepads. For whatever reason, he was in a particularly cantankerous mood and simply would not offer a reasonable answer to even the most mundane query. If a reporter said “up” he said “down”… if it was “right” he said “left”… “black” he said “white.” Just one of those days where nobody could win.

As this went on, the mercury was soaring inside of me — while still hoping that Quinn might settle down and cooperate. But, it was no use. At one point, I asked a question and the coach replied, “What difference does it make to you?” Involuntarily, the words slipped out of my mouth before I could choke them back. “My god, you are such a dick,” I blurted for everyone to hear and then left the scrum, shaking my head.

I wasn’t five feet from the pack of reporters when a wave of regret rolled over me. “Howard,” I said to myself, “what the hell did you just do? You’re a veteran reporter; you’ve been among strong personalities all of your career; how can you lose your composure like that in front of everyone?” I wanted to crawl into a hole. Several of my media pals who’d been thinking the same about Quinn — but were smart enough to control their emotions — came over and congratulated me as if I’d just scored an overtime goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I remember Ken Campbell of the Toronto Star (now The Hockey News) being among them. “Aw, Kenny, I just disgraced myself,” I said before running off to find Pat Park, the Leafs director of media relations. I all but begged Park to allow me to see Quinn and apologize. He told me to hold tight.

Two minutes later, Park was leading me toward Quinn’s office behind the dressing room. I turned the corner and said, “Lookit, Pat, I don’t know what came over you today; we’ve had our ups and downs and I’ve never seen you like that. But, it doesn’t matter. There was absolutely no excuse — zero percent — for saying what I did and I want to apologize.”

His reply?

“Forget about it, Howard. I probably would have done the same.”

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QUINN CHATS WITH HIS FORMER LEAFS WINGER, GARY ROBERTS, AT THE HALL IN 2011.

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It was Boxing Day (Dec. 26) 2001 and the Leafs — beginning their annual post–Christmas road swing — had finished a morning skate at what is now the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. After acquiring some sound from the visitors’ dressing room, I left the building through the media entrance and back parking lot. There, I came upon Quinn and Mike Zeisberger, having a chat. I sauntered over and noticed they were talking, lightheartedly, about the coach’s relationship with the media. After listening for a few moments, I looked at Quinn and said, “Hey, Pat, come on… look at me and Zeis — a Hebe and a Kraut. We get along just fine.”

Quinn yanked the stogie out of his mouth and had a hearty laugh.

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Watching the Maple Leafs skate one day in 1999 at St. Michael’s Arena, I was chatting with Paul Hendrick of Leafs–TV. We were joking about the Quinn–media dynamic when I came up with a devilish idea for the coach’s post–practice media scrum. The Leafs would be heading directly from St. Mike’s on a bus bound for Buffalo and a game, the following night, against the Sabres. Quinn held his scrum outside the front door of the arena on a cool and crisp day. After the third or fourth question, there was a slight pause and the mischievous Hendrick nudged me from behind. With the Buffalo trip looming, I said, “Pat, are members of the media allowed to travel on the same highway as the team bus?”

As my colleagues snickered, Quinn smiled and actually began to answer the question before he caught himself. “What’s your problem; did the lobotomy not work?” he thundered at me before stomping away.

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There was much turmoil in Leaf–land prior to the 1999 NHL Draft in Boston. Ken Dryden had fired his adversary, Mike Smith, as general manager but couldn’t find anyone to replace him. Smith and Quinn had worked well together and Quinn — hardly a Dryden fan — worried about who he would now report to in the Maple Leafs executive lair. Having no alternative, Dryden asked Quinn if he’d be interested in assuming the dual role of GM and coach, which prompted one of Quinn’s most memorable replies: “I may have to do it out of self–preservation.”

With all of this swirling about, I stood alongside Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star on the floor of TD Garden 90 minutes prior to the draft. The Maple Leafs’ table was on the other side of a rod–iron fence, almost directly in front of us. At that point in our relationship, Quinn wouldn’t come over to me if I needed C-P-R. But, Rosie and I both wanted to inquire about the evolving GM situation. So, I concocted a ploy.

Pointing at Rosie, I summoned the coach’s attention and said, “Pat, this nice young lady would like to speak with you.”

DiManno gagged and nearly smacked me.

“Cut the sh–, Howard,” Quinn replied with half a smile.

“Aw, c’mon, Pat, you’re not gonna turn down a lovely woman, are you?”

The coach rolled his eyes and hobbled over to the fence.

“What’s it like to be a jerk all the time?” he asked, glaring at me.

I just grinned.

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QUINN SITS BETWEEN GINO REDA (LEFT) AND BOB McKENZIE OF TSN PRIOR TO THE 2011 HOCKEY HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY. PAT WAS THE HALL’S CHAIRMAN.

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My turning point with Pat Quinn occurred, coincidentally, in his home–town of Hamilton, Ont. during the Maple Leafs 2002 training camp.

Four months earlier, while the Maple Leafs were playing Carolina in the ’02 Stanley Cup semifinals, Quinn had fallen ill with an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. He was taken to hospital in Raleigh and missed two games of that playoff series, won by the Hurricanes in Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre (Carolina went on to lose the Stanley Cup final to Detroit). Having been discharged, Quinn conducted a media scrum at a practice rink outside of Raleigh. After a moment or two, he asked to sit down. I remember he had a grayish–green color and looked, more or less, as if he were going to pass out. I also remember feeling quite horribly for the coach. The man was clearly in perilous health and my thoughts turned to more important matters, such as his family.

Once the Leafs were eliminated, doctors told Quinn he would have to dramatically change his lifestyle by losing weight; eating better and giving up his cigar habit. Otherwise, he wasn’t long for this world. To his everlasting credit, Quinn followed the orders without compromise, which had to be an extreme challenge. At the same time, he grieved over the loss of his father — Patrick Sr. — who died that summer. When training camp opened in September at Copps Coliseum, Quinn looked like a different person — physically fit and tanned. Clearly, he had worked hard on the transformation. Prior to an exhibition game in Hamilton, Pat stood outside the Maple Leafs dressing room with his arm around his mother, Jean, who had recently lost her husband. It was a touching scene.

During the pre–season, Quinn would often sit upstairs and view games from the press box. His assistants — Rick Ley and Keith Acton — would handle the bench. On this particular night, I was strolling through the hallway behind the press box in the first intermission when I noticed Quinn sitting by himself in a private booth. I wandered in and sat down beside him. “You know, I haven’t had a chance to offer you condolences on the passing of your father,” I said. “Sadly, I know what it’s like to lose a parent. So, I’m really sorry about that. But, you look phenomenal. I can only imagine how difficult the summer must have been.”

Quinn smiled; gave me a friendly whack on the shoulder and thanked me for my “kind words.” Then instinct took over.

“Pat, I’m not at all happy about the relationship we’ve had,” I said. “I never wanted to be at odds with you in the first place. If you want to shake hands now; completely wipe out the past four years and start over from scratch, I would really be grateful.” Without hesitation, Quinn stuck out his right paw and grasped mine.

Never again did we have a moment of turmoil between us.

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Rest easy, big Irishman.

I’m a better person for having known you.

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2 comments on “Remembering the Big Irishman

  1. Great stuff, Howard!

    As fans we only knew what Pat was like in front of the cameras but thanks to you, we now have better insight into of the man.

    Thanks.

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