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A brief defense of Pat Quinn: I'm missing his days as Leaf coach and GM

Every once in a while I read something on Twitter that triggers a reaction.  On this occasion, it was a conversation about Pat Quinn (and his long-time assistant coach in Vancouver and Toronto, Rick Ley).

Those providing the commentary were highly critical of Ley as a coach, claiming, for example, that he did nothing to help the Leaf defense improve in his years in Toronto (the assessment was actually much harsher than that), while Quinn was, essentially, tremendously over-rated, a guy who rode his coaching success on the back of great goaltending in Toronto (i.e. Joseph and Belfour).

Interesting comments, I guess.  Everyone is entitled to their opinions, informed or otherwise, especially on Twitter.  I'm sure I say things here and on Twitter all the time that people think is completely off base.  I get that.  But since I happen to have a personal fondness for both Quinn and Ley (and because the views shown above, in my opinion, are so terribly off base) I will use this modest forum to share my own view on two men who helped shape the Leaf team we all care about in the years between 1998 and 2006.

Let’s start with Rick Ley.  As a player (he played for the blue and white in the early ‘70s, and had his number retired after a fine career with the Hartford Whalers), the current Leafs can only wish they had someone as passionate or tough as Rickey Ley was in his playing days.  I was around in those days.  I know people who played with and against him.  I know what I saw—and what I’ve been told about Rick Ley. He played through injuries and combined skill and toughness- and leadership.

As a coach?  In the time that he was in charge of the Leaf defensemen, he helped develop a trio of young, raw, rookie defensemen in 1998-’99.  That Leaf team went to the “final four”. Not bad.

In his tenure (with Quinn as Head Coach, who was obviously also hugely instrumental in the development of various young players), Bryan McCabe, who had floundered at every previous NHL stop, became an end-of-season All-Star.  Not the kind of "All-Star" who plays in the mid-year All-Star game that seemingly everyone makes at some point.  Rather, the previously unheralded McCabe became a true “All-Star”, voted as one of the four best defensemen in hockey.  McCabe was also, if I remember correctly, a selection for the 2004 World Cup Canadian team. That's called developing a player.

Others, like Dmitry Yushkevich and Danny Markov, also both young, raw defensemen, developed tremendously in Toronto.  They, like Ley in his NHL/WHA career, played with uncommon guts, and were heart and soul hockey warriors.

It was popular in some media circles in those Vancouver and Toronto years to criticize Ley’s tenure as an NHL coach.  I can’t proclaim that he was the best coach in the NHL in his time as the top guy in Hartford and Vancouver.  He had some success in those markets as a head man, but he was certainly a more than capable NHL assistant coach.  To claim otherwise, based on the media “experts” of the day (who favour sophisticated, media-friendly, smooth-talking types) is, to me, a shame- and unfair.

I could add much more to “defend” Ley, but I’ll stop here for today.

On to Quinn.  Now, I’m sure the “fans” who think little of Quinn’s time in Edmonton (has anyone looked at the roster he was given the one year he was there?  Does anyone remember that their big off-season upgrade was signing a broken down Mike Comrie?  How have the Oilers done since?  I see that Renney is gone, too...must be the coaching) may not know that he was not able to hire his own assistant coaches.  Based on the NHL coaches I personally have worked with professionally over the years, I know that is almost always a recipe for disaster.

As for his success being achieved on the backs of great goaltenders, well, I’m trying to think of Cup-winning coaches who had lousy goaltenders.  Scotty Bowman surely wasn’t successful, in large part, because  Ken Dryden was his goaltender in Montreal throughout the 1970s, eh?  Al Arbour was not helped at all by Billy Smith being the best goalie in the world while the Islanders won the championship four years in a row.  Glen Sather had the world’s best line-up— and someone named Fuhr in goal—as he made the Hall-of-Fame. (He sure could not have made it based on his body of work with the Rangers the past decade…)

The various individuals that have coached the Devils surely would have won all those Cups without Msrtin Brodeur, right?

I could go on.  Great goaltending makes every NHL coach - Quinn and everyone else - much, much “smarter” and way more successful than he otherwise might be.

But rather than listening to fans like myself, or those I happen upon on Twitter every once in a while, when it comes to “judging” how good an NHL coach is, I’d rather rely on, say, one of the best players of all time, Wayne Gretzky.  It was Gretzky who has said many, many times that the best bench coach in hockey was….Pat Quinn.

Maybe Gretzky, who played against (and coached against) Quinn-coached teams for about 15 years, knows more than the rest of us when it comes to whether Quinn was a “good” coach or not.

I’m trying to remember who (out of all the best hockey minds in Canada) it was that Gretzky hand-picked to be Head coach of Team Canada for the Olympics in 2002 and 2006.  Oh, right, it was Pat Quinn.

Of course, Quinn critics say that his great assistant coaches were the real reason for the success of the winning Olympic team in 2002, but it was Quinn’s “failure” in 2006 (same assistants that time, in Italy.  I guess they all got dumber…).

It’s funny, eh, how we choose to form our opinions and what we base them on.

Not a good coach?  Hell, how Pat Quinn is not in the Hall of Fame is beyond me.  He won a Memorial Cup as a player a gazillion years ago, and he has also won a Memorial Cup as a a team owner.  But I’m  not talking about his being in the HOF as a player, despite a relatively successful, if modest, NHL playing career as a long-time team captain.

But as a builder?  How many guys (not already in the Hall-of-Fame) have coached two different teams to the NHL finals and have coached an Olympic Gold-medal winner (Canada, 2002), a World Cup championship (Canada, 2004), the World Junior championship 2007 and the U18 World Championships in 2008. (I need to double check the precise years of those last two achievements…)

And I must add that he was often criticized for not been able to work with young players, yet his clear success with the Canadian junior team and the U18 squad is there for all to see.  Two opportunities, two world championships.

Facts.  I'm simply providing the facts.

Ah, but he did a lousy job with a truly awful Edmonton team (did anyone see the goaltending numbers that year, and the roster Tambellini built for him?) a few years ago.

Edmonton didn’t work, so let’s erase all that other stuff.  Really?

I could say so much more, but again, as with Rick Ley above, I won’t bother.  Except to say that, from a Maple Leaf perspective, what many fans now see as acceptable under Brian Burke, would have seen Quinn, metaphorically speaking, driven out of town on a rail in Toronto.  Quinn coached and/or managed the Leafs to two "final four" appearances, and came achingly close to making the finals in 2002.  He coached teams that, most years in that era, produced against-the-grain, exciting, up-tempo hockey.  He built squads that, in the end, were not, in truth, quite good enough.  But they played meaningful hockey in the springtime, while winning an awful lot of playoff series.  Those teams were  usually tough, gritty, skilled (and actually built from the back end...)—and simply could not quite close the deal against some very strong Flyer and Devil teams.

Quinn didn’t win a Cup here, but who has in this market in the last 45 years?  He sure never had the benefit of a top-5 draft pick in his time here, that's for sure. (Of course, yo've got to be pretty, well, crappy, to have two top-5 picks within four years of one another, and a third opportunity when you traded your top-5 pick away pick away....)

Every once in a while, like many of you, I need to get something off my chest.  This was it today.

And, while I always say, hey, share your opinions, whether we agree or disagree, today, I turn off that tap.  Don’t bother sending negative comments about Quinn.  They won’t appear here.  They seem to get said plenty elsewhere—so there’s lot of other places to share misinformed views.

I’ll stick with Gretzky on this one.  He knows a lot more than me—and a ton more than those who think Quinn was not a tremendous NHL coach.


  1. Sometimes I long for the days of McCabe, Kaberle, Yushkevich, Markov et al! Not to mention Joseph and Belfour. We were THAT close back then... No fan who saw it will ever forget Yushkevich's constant hounding of Jagr back in that 99 series. Tough as nails - and Markov too. If the "can opener" had remained legal, McCabe would have been a top D-man in the league for years.
    I'm with you on this one, Michael.

  2. Thanks Gerund O'- some good names there!

  3. I liked Quinn and thought it was crazy to remove him as GM. I will just give you the facts from Wikipedia. They speak for themselves:

    Three years later, the Maple Leafs made it to the 2002 Conference Finals, but were eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes. In August 2003, Quinn was replaced as general manager by John Ferguson, Jr., who became the league's youngest general manager at 34,[19] but still retained his coaching duties.

    Following the 2004–05 NHL lockout, the Maple Leafs failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time with Quinn as head coach in 2005–06. As a result, Quinn was fired along with assistant coach and former teammate Rick Ley on April 20, 2006. The Maple Leafs had suffered season-ending injuries from key players Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Alex Khavanov and Ed Belfour, all of whom had been signed as free agents by Ferguson the preceding off-season. Despite losing all four players to injury, the Maple Leafs finished the season going 9–1–2 with a younger lineup of prospects, many of whom were drafted by Quinn during his tenure as general manager.

  4. I always thought Pat Quinn was an honourable and forthcoming coach with the talent to mold and guide his charges to greater heights than they would (or maybe even could) without him.

    While he plied his trade in Philly (and elsewhere), I always hoped he'd come to the team where he played in my earliest memories to help our Leafs. When he came, I was happy. When he left, I hoped he'd return. And knew we would miss his talents and gifting.

    As a builder, having GM added to his portfolio, I felt he did a fine job and am thankful for many acquisitions that could've brought us the cup (moreso than the presumption that we always trade away the future for washed-up has beens). When he stopped being GM, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for him as a coach (hard to make a name for yourself with the previous GM still coaching the team - though I don't put that on Pat... he seems like a guy who can work with others).

    I also liked Rick Ley as a player, though he seemed more 'rough around the edges' as a coach, so may have suffered in the media for that. However, he did a remarkable job with a young defense corps that excelled so early. I wonder how Schenn might have developed under Rick Ley!

  5. It would appear that I aged 10 years in that last comment and must have seen a much younger Pat Quinn than I remember! If I was in time for 52, I would've missed Barilko, right?!

  6. I remember watching Pat Quinn as an intimidating defenceman with the Hamilton Tiger Cubs in the late 50's. I was very happy when the leafs picked him up in the late 60's from St. Louis for Dickie Moore.

    It was sometime during his 2 year tenure with the Leafs that I witnessed the most one sided hilarious non-fights I have ever seen. I believe it was against St. Louis. Quinn and a Blues player (I can't recall his name) came together, shoved each other a couple of times and then dropped sticks and gloves. Quinn assumed his boxer's stance and started moving forward. At this point his antagonist realized whom he was up against and began backpedaling furiously, lost his balance and fell on his keyster while frantically looking for a linesman to intervene. Pat just shook his head and skated away while the entire Leaf team cracked up.

    Quinn was lost to Vancouver in the 1970 expansion draft and I for one was sorry to see him go. he was claimed by Atlanta in the 1972 expansion draft and went on during the 70's to have a solid career with the Flames.

    I was very happy when he was hired as the Leafs coach, especially after the Mike Murphy debacle. He immediatley turned the Leafs around and was rewarded with the GM job. The Leafs were always a competitive team under Quinn. He brought in players such as Steve Thomas, Alexander Karpotsev, Brian Berard, Tomas Kaberle and later Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Shane Courson and Darcy Tucker as well as players mentioned by you and Gerund O'Malley in his post.

    The Leafs made the playoffs every year that Quinn was coach-GM and never had less than 90 points. They set the all time franchise record of 103 points under Quinn in 2003-2004. Even though Ferguson jr. had assumed the GM role this was essentially Quinn's team. I can't help but feel that if Quinn had maintained the GM role they would not have come out of the lock-out big, slow and unprepared and would not have fallen to the present state of non-playoff teams.

    Pat Quinn won 684 regular season games and 84 playoff games as a coach. He had a .556 regular season winning percentage and a .514 playoff winning percentage. He won two Conn Smythe trophies and was a finalist on at least one other occasion. He was a great coach and GM and Peddie did the Leaf Nation a great disservice when he replaced him.

  7. Yes, Quinn was criticized regularly for trading away supposedly great young prospects, but as I have posted here in the past, InTimeFor62, what did any of those "futures" do elsewhere? Boyes was the best of the lot, probably, and he has bounced around to half a dozen teams or so.

    I'd much rather have had a legitimate shot at winning a Cup, which the Leafs did during some of the seasons Pat was here.

    And yes, if you had been "InTimeFor52", you would have missed Barilko's famous Cup-wnning OT winner by a year!

    Thanks InTimeFor62.

  8. You mentioned one of the key names in the mess (organizationally) that surrounded Pat- Peddie. Between he and Tanenbaum, they took what was a solid team and organization and sent it careening backwards. The pratfall hasn't stopped yet, though Peddie has finally resigned.

    Thanks very much PeteCam- you're one of the fine people that drop by here that remember the old days- in this case, including Quinn as a player. Many of those who criticized Quinn so harshly in his time here may now wonder if they failed to appreciate what they had.

  9. A couple of things I forgot to mention...

    Pat Quinn graduated with a BA in economics from York University in 1972. This is remarkable in an era where finishing high school was a big achievement for most players. To top this he went on to earn a law degree from from the Widener University School of Law, in Delaware.

    Pat Quinn also coached future coach-executives such as Bobby Clarke, Paul Holmgren, Bill Barber, Joe Nieuwendyk and even Dallas Eakins. I can't help but believe that some of his expertise rubbed off on these men.

  10. Very much a Pat Quinn fan, it's a shame his time in Toronto was accompanied by so much dysfunction in the front office. Rick Ley, not so much. I hated his assessment of Jason Smith, who was traded because Ley thought he "skated funny". They never replaced what he had to offer the lineup. He also didn't like Dany Markov because he liked to party. Markov was a true warrior who sacrificed his body every shift, one of my favourite Leafs of that time. They should have won one Cup at least during Quinn's tenure, those losses to Buffalo in 1999 and Carolina in 2002 really hurt. Oh for the days when Toronto was a much sought after destination for elite hockey players.

  11. Michael,

    Pat Quinn and his time in Toronto certainly gets the blood pumping, doesn't it? What we like and dislike about certain people, especially people that we don't truly know, is complicated. Anyone who has read your work knows that you know Mr. Quinn personally, and I don't hesitate to say that you like and respect him. I have heard all the same things said over the years that you have. I don't get to be on the bench or hear what happens in the dressing room. I have no idea whether any of it is true or not. I think that the impression of Quinn and Ley would be changed instantly in everyone's eyes if they had won a cup. Thanks for the great read today, this is certainly a passionate topic in Toronto.

  12. I can't argue, Quinn was an excellent coach, and a players' coach who got the most from his veterans. His record with TOR speaks for itself with a .591 winning percentage and only missing the playoffs once in seven years.

    Quinn is capable of coaching just about any team, and even a team of younger players, HOWEVER, I would not say he is a coach who typically wants to develop young players. He always favored his veteran players and sometimes at the detriment of giving rookies ice time. Guys like McCabe, Yushkevich and Markov improved with the Leafs, but they each had years under their belt prior to coming to the Leafs (whether in NHL or Russia). Quinn gave those guys the ice time to mature. About the only raw rookie I can recall that Quinn let step in and play was Tomas Kaberle.

    Some players like Antropov, Ponikarovsky, etc may have got held up in their development as Quinn went primarily with his veterans. You can't argue his record, but Quinn and the Leafs were going with experienced players and neglecting their development system (either by trading draft picks, or not developing the ones they had drafted).

    It's a fine balance between winning and the need to develop players. Lately Leaf fans have been wavering in their criticism. Some say the Leafs are rushing their players and not giving them the needed development time in the AHL. Others are questioning why they are not giving the kids a chance to play.

    I loved Quinn as a coach, but I found Maurice and Wilson refreshing in that they were not afraid to give a kid a chance, or to sit a veteran in the press box if they have been under-performing.

  13. Thanks for adding that, PeteCam. As I recall, Pat also earned a Law degree after he coached in Philadelphia.

    And his hockey managerial "imprint" was remarkable- we can add a host of names to the list you started above...including Brian Burke, Tambelini and many, many others. I'm shocked Quinn receives so little credit for his overall impact on the modern game.

  14. Hi Ingy56...I knew Rick quite well, and your assessment above may be shaped in part by the way the media portrayed him. His ability to assess players, I can assure everyone, went far deeper than how they skated!

    I loved Markov, too, but things can sometimes happen that we, as fans, don't know the whole story behind.

    But I do agree we could have won a Cup in that era. Those were some pretty special teams because they combined skill, goaltending, creative play and toughness. Thanks Ingy56.

  15. Thanks for chiming in, Jim. I well realize people have different views on players, coaches, etc. I get that.

    And yes, as I have long acknowledged here, I suppose I am biased. But today I tried to let some facts speak for themselves. Quinn's success is rare in the hockey world- and his imprint even broader.

  16. That was one of the regular assessments of Quinn, Don (TML_fan). But for me, the fact that he played not just Kaberle but three rookie defensemen in his first season behind the bench in Toronto demonstrated he had no issue with playing "kids". (I think Tremblay and Markov were the others.) Berard was maybe 21 at the time, too.

    Kids like Modin and McCauley got a shot under Quinn. Welwood, who was tiny, got a shot later.

    He did so in Vancouver before that, as well. He played plenty of young players.

    Yes, he liked veterans, but every coach leans on and relies on veterans who can play.

    I will only say, to to the point about Maurice and Wilson trying out young players; that's fine, and I absolutely agree deserving young players should get a shot when they are old enough to play, physically, in the NHL. But it was in part because Ferguson had killed the roster that Wilson and Maurice went with some kids- and, we haven't been near the players since 2004. So I'll take Pat's approach!

    Thanks Don.

  17. Michael: I have to admit that my impressions of Mr. Ley are influenced by media sources, primarily Bill Watters, who relayed these stories during his radio shows. Also, I had a bad experience with Mr. Ley during a hockey camp I attended as a youth and was remedied by Mr. Watters and Mike Walton. Therefore I do admit to some bias. Also, here's another good Pat Quinn story I was reminded of while watching the Gold Medal Game from The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics the other night. Quinn was staying in the athletes village and stepped out at night to smoke his legendary cigars. An athlete from another sport dropped by one night and began talking to Quinn about his doubts in his own ability and Quinn talked him through it and I believe the athlete gained a medal in his sport (I believe it was skiing). Word got out that this big man that smoked cigars was giving good advice and other athletes dropped by to talk. There was a story in The Star about it called "Pat's Bench" and was quite interesting, I wish I could find a link to it.

  18. Yes Ingy, Bill W. has long had the apparent need to try to sound complimentary about a coach or player while at the same time - and in the same sentence - saying something that sounds quite damning about the individual.

    It's not a trait I admire, and he carries little weight with me, as a result.

    As for the 2002 Olympics, I seem to recall the same story. Makes sense. Pat is a wise person who would gladly share his experiences with younger people, if they were interested. (That was in his cigar-smoking days!).

    Thanks Ingy.

  19. The two Pats, Burns and Quinn, provided the closest Leaf winning teams in my lifetime. For Quinn to be axed following the narrow missing of the playoffs remains an outrage to me that probably had its roots in the MLSE power struggle that we can hope is gone with the troika of bell,rogers and tanenbaum in charge. One thing I read about Quinn that I never understood was in the book Leafs Abomination was author Al Strachan's painting of Quinn as a hopelessly outdated bench coach with a non-communicative style with players. This seems to be counter to Quinn's history working with youth, and I haven't read the book in a while but also recall he used the Leaf lineup playoff mixup as an example of supposed incompetence. That is probably the only place I ever read anything overly negative about Quinn. This overly personal attack by Strachan seemed to bely a long history covering the game and despite his often entertaining style, the snarky columnist /correspondent is now mostly retired and few seem to mourn his loss.

  20. Thanks for posting here, Sean.

    There were three columnists at the time who took shots at Quinn regularly, and a radio host as well. I remember them and their often ridiculous critiques quite clearly, but I was possibly more aware than some at the time, for a variety of reasons.

    I recall the mistake you cite (via Strachan) about a mistake in the lineup card. Yes, things happen, but for him to to cite that isolated instance of human error and somehow suggest that equals incompetence is just silly. That particular long-time columnist is long gone from the day-to-day scene.

  21. As an Australian who has never been to an NHL game, I don't often have a memory worth sharing on this forum. But the six months I lived in Ontario came during the Leafs' run to the 2002 conference final. As a 17-year-old, I was walking with my family down a street in Ottawa when we realised the crowd we were pushing through was the Leafs disembarking a bus on their way into a hotel. One of the last off the bus was Quinn, an arm's length away. I was too embarrassed to ask for a photo with him, but my sister wasn't. I wish I had that pic in hindsight!

    McCabe, Kaberle, Cujo, Sundin, Tucker, Roberts, Mogilny - they were my heroes during the few months I was able to watch games, and Pat Quinn was there directing them. He was underrated, I thought when he was let go. Many fans seem to look at the teams on the early 90s as closer to a cup than those of a decade ago, but I'm not sure why.

  22. I agree, Peregrine, that the 2002 Cup run somehow gets lost in the memory bank of some Leaf fans. The 1993 journey seems to be a more vivid memory, or provide the idea that we were "closer" to a Cup.

    '93 was tremendous, for sure. But we were achingly close to getting to the finals under Quinn in '02, as well.

    Quinn is very generous in those situations- I'm sure he would have posed with you!

    Thanks for chiming in on this one, Peregrine.