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Pat Quinn's death mourned with tributes in Hamilton

Pat Quinn, the legendary hockey coach who was born in Hamilton and launched his career here, has died.

Quinn grew up playing hockey on homemade rink in Mahoney Park

Pat Quinn laced-up his first pair of skates in Hamilton's east end, bashing around on homemade ice rinks all day before heading home to listen to NHL games on the radio. He would go on to become an icon of Canadian hockey.

Quinn, one of the NHL's great coaches, died on Sunday at the age of 71 after a long illness.

In Hamilton, Quinn has an arena and pool named after him in the Parkdale area. Glennie Avenue, where he grew up, has since been named Pat Quinn Way. Condolences poured in from across the city as news of his death broke, several of which are embedded in this story.

Mike Ulmer, a former sports columnist with the Toronto Sun who now writes for the Maple Leafs website, said Quinn’s size was the first thing you noticed about the coach, but it was his intelligence that stood out.

“He was really a smart guy. He had a great vocabulary which probably exceeded most other coaches and most of his players,” Ulmer, a Dundas resident, said.

Every press conference with Pat was almost like a tutorial. Because he was so entertaining you’d inevitably come away with something interesting every time.”

Quinn was proud of his Hamilton working class roots, Ulner said, which were an “integral part of his personality” both as a coach and on the ice where he served as more of a “plumber” than a skill player.

That background, as well as Quinn’s Irish roots, seemed to shape the coach’s worldview.

“People in sports can be very myopic in terms of their view of the world, and Pat was never that way. He always saw the bigger picture,” Ulmer said.

Quinn played for 9 seasons

In a 2011 essay posted on Imperial Oil's website, Quinn reminisced on his early days of playing hockey in Hamilton's Mahoney Park area as a 3-year-old wearing "double-runner skates tied to my boots."

"Like many young Canadian kids today, we played on a rink that my father made in the yard. At age five, I recall graduating to the better backyard rink that a neighbour built. I was allowed to stay until the streetlights came on, improving with my new (at least to me) hand-me-down skates, which I wore with four pairs of socks to help fill the boots."

He goes on to write about his first game as a pro at Maple Leaf Gardens.

"As the first player in the dressing room, I sat at my new stall, looked up and read for the 10th time that day the famous Conn Smyth Challenge: 'If you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice,'" Quinn wrote.

"I thought to myself I’ll do pretty well here because 'The Alley' just might be the best part of my game."

Known for that toughness and his size, "The Big Irishman" played nine seasons as an NHL defenceman.

Golden coach

Quinn will be remembered more as a coach, however, who led Canada's team to Olympic gold in 2002 and twice brought the Toronto Maple Leafs deep into the playoffs.

Quinn spoke with CBC Hamilton in 2012 after being named an Officer of the Order of Canada, an honour that he said deeply humbled him.

Quinn said his contribution to Canadian society paled in comparison to that of his father, uncles and grandfather, who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

"Because of the ways my family contributed to this country, this is pretty humbling for me," Quinn said.

"I'm a guy getting recognized for something I love doing anyway. They risked their lives, I just went on the ice."

Brian Lewis, Chair of the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame and former executive with the Hamilton Bulldogs, called Quinn a "classy" guy who remained connected with the local community.

The Bulldogs honoured Quinn as part of their 2004 "Heroes of Hometown Hockey" event, and Quinn, then coach of the Leafs, was "right in there" even though it meant giving up a Friday night.

"He was probably using it as a chance to scout," Lewis said with a laugh.

Quinn was named to the recently-formed local sports hall of fame in 2012.

Murray Oliver, another Hamilton NHLer and hall-of-famer, died on Sunday. Oliver played for the OHA's Hamilton Tiger Cubs for four seasons before going on to a pro career with Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Minnesota North Stars.

CBC Hamilton is hoping to speak with people in the city who knew Quinn. Contact reporter John Rieti at 905-524-1985. 

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