Standing Pat on his T.O. exit

Former Maple Leafs coach returns to Toronto on Saturday, when he'll be behind the bench for the...

Former Maple Leafs coach returns to Toronto on Saturday, when he'll be behind the bench for the Edmonton Oilers.

MIKE ZEISBERGER, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:28 PM ET

MONTREAL — There was never going to be a sappy farewell press conference, one of those tear-jerker gatherings complete with the crying, the tissues and the endless mind-numbing “Thank yous.”

That just was not Pat Quinn’s way. Never has been. Never will be.

It was April 20, 2006 and Quinn, the second-winningest coach in the history of the Maple Leafs franchise, had just been canned by general manager John Ferguson, putting an end to the ornery Irishman’s colourful era behind the Toronto bench.

In the days that followed the firing, everyone seemed to have an opinion on the move.

His legion of critics claimed the game had passed him by and that his players had tuned him out. It was time for an injection of new blood, they insisted, in the form of Marlies coach Paul Maurice.

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke, on the other hand, told the Toronto Sun at the time that Quinn “got f----d in Toronto” and wondered why the Leafs would axe a guy who had missed the playoffs just once in seven seasons.

Everyone, it seemed, had something to say on the matter. Everyone, that is, except Quinn himself.

Other than a brief statement received by a handful of news agencies via fax, Quinn simply packed up and walked into the sunset. There was, he says, no other option.

“Tell me who likes losing their job?” Quinn reflected Thursday.

“Especially a job they liked as much as I did.

“I lost my job. It was done. Obviously I didn’t agree with it, but facts were facts. What was I going to say? I’d met with the media pretty much every day for seven seasons. There was nothing more to be said.

“That’s why I didn’t want a big extravaganza.”

With that in mind, Pat Quinn and the Maple Leafs parted ways.

Quinn would go on to lead both the Canadian under-18 and under-20 teams to gold medals at the world championships before coming back to the NHL this past offseason to coach the Edmonton Oilers. The 30th place Oilers, for the record.

The Leafs? They have continued to struggle, failing to reach the postseason since 2004 when — you guessed it — their coach was Pat Quinn.

Saturday, the two parties will hold a reunion. Sort of.

For the first time since his dismissal, Pat Quinn will coach an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre, a place that holds so many fond memories for him.

There will be handshakes and hellos from the moment he steps into the building.

From trainers. From security workers. From Leafs equipment man Brian (Pappy) Papineau, one of the few remaining holdovers from the Quinn era which ran from 1998-2006.

“It’s the people that you remember the most, people like Pappy, the doormen, whomever,” Quinn said. “When you are around them so much, they become almost like family.”

Hopefully someone from that “family” shows him the way to the visitors bench at the ACC Saturday. He can’t remember ever being there before.

— — —

Almost four years after receiving the ol’ heave ho out of the Toronto organization, Pat Quinn claims he holds no grudges. Not toward management. Or ownership. Or anyone else who might have greased the skids for his exit out of Toronto.

At the same time, he admits he could see the writing on the dressing-room wall for his eventual departure when his former boss and respected friend, Steve Stavro, stepped down as chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. in 2003.

Several months later, Quinn, having surrendered his GM’s portfolio, watched the suits at MLSEL hire 34-year-old John Ferguson as GM.

In the process, Quinn’s favoured candidates, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson and Vancouver Canucks managerial up-and-comer Steve Tambellini, were passed over.

“That whole process was wrong,” Quinn said, refusing to elaborate.

“I could see (the end) coming, from Mr. Stavro to the way they pushed (assistant GM) Bill Watters out to their hiring of young Maurice with the Marlies. (Management) was waiting for a stumble.”

That stumble didn’t come in 2003-04, the first season of the Ferguson-Quinn partnership. After taking the team to Stockholm for training camp, the Leafs set a franchise record for points with 103.

“(Watters) and I put that most-points team together,” Quinn said.

The stumble did, in fact, arrive in 2005-06, the year after the lockout. For the first time as coach of the Leafs, Quinn failed to guide his team into the post-season. Even a late-season surge still left them two points on the outside looking in.

No matter that starting goalie Ed Belfour’s body crumbled during the season, leaving chaos between the pipes.

For most of Quinn’s tenure, Belfour and, before him, Curtis Joseph, had managed to cover up any warts on the roster. Now, Quinn had no answers.

And, as of April 20, 2006, no job either.

— — —

The 2009-10 season has not been easy for the 67-year-old Quinn.

Despite a stellar coaching staff that includes the highly respected Tom Renney and the underrated Wayne Fleming, the Oilers appear on their way to a lottery pick, likely top-ranked Taylor Hall of the Windsor Spitfires.

Part of it was the early season loss of their prized free-agent catch, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, to back issues. Leading scorer Ales Hemsky was lost for the season, too, part of the 500-plus man-games the Oilers have lost to injury. Some overpriced contracts, such as the one that is paying forward Shawn Horcoff a $7 million US salary this season, does not help either.

“Those are factors but you don’t like to make excuses,” Quinn said. “The entire staff is disappointed. It’s our job to teach these kids and we’re going to keep trying to do that.”

Neither the players nor Tambellini, now the Oilers GM, is blaming Quinn.

“He’s been through so much, coached in so many eras, he just commands so much respect,” forward Dustin Penner said. “Guys listen when he talks.”

Added Tambellini: “We have a great coaching staff. Pat’s influence goes beyond the players too. Look at how many people in the game this man has helped establish themselves. Myself. David Poile. Brian Burke. The list goes on.”

As he brings his Oilers to Toronto for Saturday’s tilt with the Leafs, Quinn will remember the great times there. But make no mistake. There were disappointments too.

“I really thought we had two or three teams in Toronto that might have gone all the way,” he said.

“Had we got past Buffalo in the (1999) Eastern Conference final, I liked the way we would have matched up in the final (against Dallas). We had a good shot in 2002 when we lost in the conference final to Carolina. And in 2004, the year we set the franchise record for points, that was a really good team too.

“Still, in my time there, it was as satisfying a period as I’ve ever had in hockey, both on and off the ice. I loved it. The fans were great. The city is great. It was special.”

In his time in Toronto, Pat Quinn was many things. He could be as crusty as a person could be one day, then be funny and witty the next.

He could fascinatingly break down a game like no other to the media during a morning skate, then restrict their dressing-room access that night after the game.

The bottom line, however: Pat Quinn was a winner, leading the Leafs to 300 victories. Only Punch Imlach has more.

Sure, there were no Stanley Cup parades down Bay St. But there also were six consecutive playoff appearances.

That’s right. Playoffs. A place this franchise hasn’t been since Pat Quinn left.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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