Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports
When former Canucks owner Frank Griffiths and his son Arthur met with Pat Quinn at the patio bar of a San Diego hotel late in 1986, Quinn – who was still working for the Los Angeles Kings at the time – took a break from his scotch and from puffing on his cigar and asked the ownership group recruiting him what they wanted from him in the big picture.
“Respectability,” said the elder Griffiths.
Quinn was surprised. He expected the former Canucks owner to say “to win a Stanley Cup” or something more tangible.
Frank, who had owned the Canucks for 13 years with only intermittent success, assured Quinn that a Stanley Cup would follow if respectability was achieved. First though, the club needed to achieve something more ephemeral.
In his 10 years as the president and general manager of the Canucks, Quinn achieved that and more.
The Canucks organization, under Quinn’s direction, began to take a more active approach to community service – even writing a public appearance stipulation into player contracts. It’s a legacy of community-mindedness that persists to this day.
“When Pat came in 1987 he brought a sense of pride, a sense of dignity and he just brought that culture,” explained Canucks president Trevor Linden. “And that culture has been with our organization since. Just that mentality that Pat brought has been part of this organization for the last 30 years. There’s no doubt: his finger prints are still on this franchise, for sure.”
On Monday, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced that Pat Quinn would be inducted in the builders category. It’s an appropriate honour for a hockey lifer who worked for five different NHL franchises over a lengthy career as a head coach and executive.
Though Quinn was successful in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles and in Toronto too, it’s hard to imagine that he had a bigger impact in any city than he had in Vancouver.
The Canucks were effectively a laughing stock for the first 25 years of their existence. There were moments of joy and success – with the Stanley Cup Final run in 1982 standing out – but those were the exceptions to the rule. The idea of attracting marquee free agents (much less enough fans to sell out regularly) or of playing a postseason series against a big market team without being widely lambasted as “clutch and grabbers ruining the sport” by the Eastern media was a foreign concept.
Under Quinn, that began to change. Quinn brought in a youthful assistant general manager, Brian Burke, and allowed him to modernize the organization. Typewriters were replaced with computers (though Quinn struggled to use them on occasion, or so the stories go). The club built one of the first ‘war rooms’ in the NHL, taking the idea from the New Orleans Saints.
The war room was a white board with the depth charts of rival teams – and their minor league prospects – sprinkled across the wall. It’s not dissimilar from what Jim Benning has to this day in his office on Griffiths Way.
“People would see Pat and me in the war room, and Pat would be standing there smoking a cigar, and we’d be staring at the walls,” Burke recalled to Jason Farris in his seminal book Behind the Moves. “I know there were people who didn’t know what that room was for and they would walk by and think we were crazy.”
Crazy or not, it seems to have worked, as Quinn went about constructing the 1994 Stanley Cup Final team primarily on the trade market.
The stars of that team – Linden and Pavel Bure – were drafted by the club, sure, but the blue line (Sergio Momesso, Jyrki Lumme, Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican, Dave Babych) was acquired almost exclusively through trade. The club, in one of Quinn’s first moves, dealt for key playoff heroes Kirk MacLean and Greg Adams in a major deal with the New Jersey Devils. They picked up players like Martin Gelinas on the waiver wire from the Quebec Nordiques. Time and again – like during his final trade deadline as Canucks general manager, when he traded Alex Stojanov to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Markus Naslund – Quinn’s knowledge of players at the fringes of rivals NHL rosters proved key.
There were mistakes too. The club lost a lot of cash in the Vladimir Krutov debacle, lost Igor Larionov over a $150,000 pittance that they refused to pay to the Soviet equivalent of the Russian Hockey Federation and Bure was alienated from the franchise early on; but there’s no denying that Quinn built an intriguing young team and then came closer than anyone in franchise history ever has to the summit of the sport.
Ultimately though, Quinn’s foremost passion – and his greatest successes with the Canucks – came as Vancouver’s head coach.
“The thing about Pat is that he loved coaching so much. That was his true passion, to be behind the bench,” recalled Linden on Monday. “Working with the players and in the game, that was his passion and that’s why he did it.
Whether Quinn’s teams won or not, his players seemed willing to run through a brick wall for him in the playoffs. Some of it was theatricality. In his Quinn biography, Dan Robson tells a story of the then Canucks coach kicking a garbage can repeatedly to make a point in the dressing room. When he went to put weight on that foot on his way to storming out, he realized he’d broken his big toe, but was determined not to limp out after such a demonstration. He managed the feat.
More of it though just had to do with respect and presence. Perhaps as Quinn was so often the tallest in the room, it was natural that he’d end up leading something.
“He just had that presence,” Linden continued. “He just walked in the room and he had your attention. That’s probably the thing, especially with coaches, that presence that he had when he walked in the room. He had a tremendous amount of respect from his players and that was key for Pat. It’s just the way he operated.”
Quinn never brought a Stanley Cup to his adopted hometown, but he did what Frank Griffiths asked of him: he brought respectability.
Winning isn’t the only barometer of success in life or in hockey though. Under Quinn’s guidance the club produced managerial talent that continues to shape franchises across the league. The Canucks, as a franchise, became an attractive enough asset that ownership was able to secure private financing for a new downtown arena. And by the time Vancouver’s new Orca Bay ownership group fired Quinn in 1997, the club was a major player in terms of talent acquisition. It was possible to imagine a player like Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier signing with the club.
With Quinn set to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, today is an appropriate time to remember how crucial his presence was in reversing the fortunes of a once moribund franchise. That’s what the ‘builder’ designation is all about.
Quinn’s legacy in Vancouver is about more than that though. It’s about the community-mindedness he insisted on, it’s about the way his teams played ferociously for him, it’s about the way he treated people socially. It’s about the respectability that he brought to the club and the impact that he’s had on the professional and major junior hockey scenes in Vancouver.
“It’s a special day for the organization and myself personally,” Linden said on Monday. “It’s special because I was fortunate enough to play for Pat and he drafted me and I know how much he loved the game and how much he cared about the game – how much respect he had for the people in the game. It’s really gratifying for me to see such a great man inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and I know how proud he would be if he were still with us today.”