|Pat Quinn joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998|
I came home for lunch one spring afternoon in 2006, heading straight to the living room to prepare my 12 o'clock routine. I turned on the television and flipped through the channels, searching for my go-to sports highlight package that recapped the previous night. The last few years leading up to that point were an on-the-fly evolution of sports fandom that defined my childhood. The days of Monday Night Raw and dressing up as Stone Cold Steve Austin for Halloween were over; my evenings were now spent watching hockey with my dad, learning the names of the stars that played the game, and dipping my toes in the waters of the other professional sports that made up North America.
Eventually, I landed on the now-defunct The Score, and saw the breaking news on the ticker.
MAPLE LEAFS FIRE HEAD COACH PAT QUINN
I was shocked. I had never seen someone in sports get fired before, so for it to be the man who I saw as another male figure seemed impossible. Quinn was the savvy grey-haired devil who always preached talent over systematic hockey; in the past 24 hours, the most stated fact of the 71-year-old was that he hated the trap, hated structured zone-defense, and wanted his offensively gifted players to not feel the constraints of a system that was pounded into their heads from the first day of camp.
With Quinn's firing, it marked the end of an era where every hockey moment I remember growing up was, in part, because of him: Canada's Salt Lake City gold in 2002, their World Cup victory of 2004, the blue and white playoff runs of the early 2000s -- Sundin, Roberts, Mogilny...whoaaaaa baby -- these were the staples of my childhood. These were the moments where I cheered from the living room of a small two-bedroom home on Palmer Street. I cried with every playoff loss, lost my freakin' mind after Mats Sundin tied it up against Carolina, jumped to the ceiling and felt the highest of highs when Darcy Tucker ended Sami Kapanen, then the lowest of lows a minute later after Jeremy Roenick put the Leafs out of the post-season for the next nine years.
"He had a presence in the dressing room that demanded respect," said Sundin, in a quote published in the Toronto Star. "(He) had a way of talking and getting the guys ready for each game that really got the best out of the teams that he coached."
When I saw the news of Quinn's death yesterday, I sat in my dorm and reflected on, not just his time with Toronto, but a culmination of everything. I thought about his legendary hit that triggered a sea of career-ending injuries for Bobby Orr, or how right up until the end, the former law school student was considered one of the toughest individuals to ever come through the National Hockey League. Quinn was a mean, pissed off, burly Irishman who commanded respect everywhere he went. The two-time Jack Adams award winning coach personified many of the things that were good about hockey: an endless work ethic, attention to detail, a sense of true leadership, and a willingness to embrace top-level talent. Quinn wanted to put his best five players against your best five players, and whoever came out at the end was the better team. Simple as that.
"He had a commanding presence without having to raise his voice," quoted by John Ferguson Jr., the same General Manager who fired Quinn in 2006.
My father always commented on Pat Burns being "The Coach" for his generation of Leafs fans, how he took Toronto farther in the playoffs than he had ever seen in his lifetime, and how a Burns decision was never put into question; the same can be said for Quinn. That run in '02 was as close to Maple Leaf glory as I've seen in my first 21 years of living, six wins away from the elusive holy grail. I find myself reminiscing on a life that was entrenched in the world of hockey, one that produced a half-decent pro career and a life behind the bench that guided hundreds of men to NHL stardom. And now, he's gone.
Keep chewing that gum, Coach. Keep chewing.