We were talking about Pat Quinn Monday morning, soon after hearing the sad news of his death. Everybody who'd crossed paths with Quinn had a story to share, including the Calgary Flames' general manager, Brad Treliving, who had a tryout with Vancouver back when Quinn was running the Canucks.
"In those days, there'd be 100 guys in camp, so there's all this noise, guys waiting for the meeting to start," Treliving said. "It reminded me of the old Westerns, where the cowboy walks into the saloon and the music stops."
"That was Pat," Treliving continued. "That was his commanding presence. Physically, he was this big intimidating guy, but he was as gentle and kind a person as you could meet. He would treat the janitor the same way we would treat the CEO."
Quinn, most recently the chairman of the Hockey Hall Of Fame, had been battling a stubbornly resistant infection that had followed a medical procedure back in mid-September. Up until a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if he might be healthy enough to attend the recent Hall induction ceremonies. Finally, Quinn sent word that he wouldn't be able to travel after all, and John Davidson stepped in to handle his duties. It was an unexpected and worrisome development: Quinn was, after all, just 71, and last June, when our committee met to select the class of 2014, he looked well, apart from a slight limp.
Quinn achieved a lot in his career – 606 NHL games played, another 1,400 coached. He was in charge when Canada's Olympic men's hockey team won the gold medal in 2002 at Salt Lake City – arguably his greatest achievement as a coach. He was behind the bench again in 2009 when Canada won world junior gold.
During his time away from coaching in the mid-1980s, he earned a law degree; his ability to argue a point made his postgame news conferences fascinating. He was always at the top of your Rolodex when you needed an intelligent thought on the issues of the day.
We served together on the Hall of Fame selection committee for the past 11 years and, in the beginning, Quinn went out of his way to make a jittery newcomer feel welcome.
In 30-plus years of interaction, the event I remember most dated back to the first time we ever had any professional contact, in the spring of 1981.
Quinn was then coaching a very good Philadelphia Flyers team that had made the Stanley Cup final the previous season, and he had won the first of two Jack Adams Awards as the NHL's coach of the year. The Flyers were known for their ability to win in the playoffs; the Flames, recently relocated from Atlanta, were considered postseason lightweights. It wasn't supposed to be close.
But Flames coach Al MacNeil had a plan to counter Philadelphia's physical edge, cobbling together a forward line that consisted of Jim Peplinski, Willi Plett and Randy Holt, a defenceman playing out of position. They were known as Rat Poison because Philadelphia's top line at the time – Ken Linseman, Brian Propp and Paul Holmgren – was known as the Rat Patrol.
Philadelphia was not that far removed from its Broad Street Bullies days, and Holt – a fighter who seemed like he was straight out of the Slap Shot movie – would have been right at home on the Flyers of that era. All you needed to know about Holt's NHL career is that in 395 regular-season games he scored exactly four goals, but accumulated 1,438 penalty minutes.
But in this series, with Calgary on the ropes, Holt managed two goals in a memorable game at the old Calgary Corral, keeping alive a series that the Flames unexpectedly won in seven games.
Imagine the younger version of Quinn postgame, with the omnipresent cigar either clamped between his teeth or wedged between thumb and forefinger, where it could be used to emphatically make a point.
Every question focused on how the Flyers had failed in this critical moment. Every one of Quinn's answers kept circling back to Randy Holt, with Quinn shaking his head at the fickleness of the hockey gods – sometimes the games and the series and the years just get away from you.
The Flyers had other good years and other chances to win, but Quinn never did raise the Stanley Cup. It's the one lone omission on an otherwise remarkable hockey CV – the Hamilton boy who made it to the NHL against long odds, and then stayed in the game until the very end.
His old friend Jim Gregory, vice-chairman of the Hockey Hall Of Fame, characterized Quinn Monday morning as "one of hockey's most respected individuals, whose lifetime involvement as a player, coach and executive made an indelible mark on the game."
He was. And he did. And he will be missed by all whose paths he crossed.