we want quinn: a short history of the quinn-orr wars of 1969

1969-70 O-Pee-Chee #186 Pat QuinnPat Quinn was a coach and a manager and a hockey co-owner and the tributes continue to mount following news of his death a week ago in Vancouver at the age of 71. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know that he was a straight-shooting cigar-chomping golden-hearted remarkable-CV’d guy’s guy old-school big-presenced Hamiltonian ornery Irishman larger-than-life goofy-grandfatherish intimidating great-story-telling three-piece-suited unconventional level-headed adaptable keeping-it-simple father-figurely high-acumened gruff-exteriored kindly personality’d news-conference-maestro hockey-beauty-loving square-jawed much-respected fine-broth-of-a-lad time-for-everyone-even-the-Zamboni-driver well-educated charismatic legendary Hibernian lion whip-smart could-have-done-anything-in-his-life heart-on-sleeve Gordie-Howe-idolizing player-trusting sarcastic not-a-detail-freak smart-cookie winner who left his indelible mark on the game and everyone who met him.

You’ll have heard, too, if you hadn’t before of a famous hit of his, when he was a defenceman in 1969 for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s been getting a lot of ink; here’s more.

Quinn’s active-NHLer adjectives included bruising, fearsome, give-it-his-all, tough, no-nonsense and not-afraid-of-a-good-fight. But while he may have played 617 NHL games over nine seasons for three teams, scoring 18 goals and 132 points while incurring 971 minutes of penalty punishment, but mostly the memorializing distills all that into the several seconds it took him to cross forty(ish) feet to desolate Bobby Orr with a bodycheck.

It was the first game of the playoffs, early April, in Boston. A crushing hit, CBC.ca was recalling last week, that rendered Orr unconscious. The Globe and Mail ran a photo of what it looked like the moment after the two men fell.

You have back up, though. To tell the story. March 15, nine games to go in the season, Boston came to Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were battling Detroit for the final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Division while the Bruins were sitting 14 points ahead, safely in second. They were a scoring juggernaut. The team was about to set an NHL record for goalscoring in a season. Headed for a scoring title, Phil Esposito already had more points than anyone ever had in the league. And Orr was closing to setting a new record by points by a defenceman.

quinn orr

Orr Wrestled Quinn: March 16, 1969, Boston’s famous #4 topples Toronto’s mighty #23. (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

But the Bruins were slumping. That’s what GM Milt Schmidt said. Coach Harry Sinden had injuries to contend with, ailing goalies in Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston and a pair of limping Eddies, Shack and Westfall. Plus Boston hadn’t won in Toronto since 1965, 21 games ago, back when Orr was still skating for the Oshawa Generals.

And the Leafs did prevail, 7-4. Walloped was a word Louis Cauz used in The Globe and Mail. Toronto played it rough. Bruce Gamble played great in the Leaf net. Well, once they went down 3-1 he did. After that, as Toronto came roaring back, Gamble shone. Ron Ellis scored a couple of goals to — what’s the word? — pace the Leafs. Toronto was Ellis-paced.

Oh, and high sticks. There were those, too, and several elbows, and sundry punches. Those contributed something, I’m thinking. Or didn’t. Anyway, a 26-year-old Pat Quinn was involved in a lot of this. Towards the end of the first period, he and Boston’s Don Awrey exchanged … glances? funny faces? fuck-yous? The Boston Globe called it potential squaring off. I guess the linesmen intervened before the two players got any squares off and while:

Brent Casselman was restraining Quinn, the big youngster pushed the official around quite enthusiastically.

In another report, he shook Casselman. Coach Sinden preferred tossed him around. The Bruins couldn’t believe he wasn’t ejected from the game and summarily suspended, which was had happened to Esposito earlier in the year when he manhandled a referee: two games. But Quinn got away with an elbowing minor.

In the third, Bobby Orr was in front of the Toronto net when Gamble made a save and Quinn was there to charge him head first into the sidebar (Boston Globe, March 16) or cross-check him into the Leaf goalposts (Toronto Star, March 17) or run him into the crossbar (Boston Globe, March 17) and Orr wrestled Quinn to the ice after the two had traded punches (Star, March 17) or tipped over his larger opponent (Boston Globe, March 16) and (also) Quinn kicked Bobby a few times in the process (Boston Globe, March 17).

That was the Saturday night. Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, the two teams met again in Boston. The crowd chanted “We want Quinn” and possibly “Kill Quinn,” but they were disappointed: he didn’t play let alone get murdered. His groin was, well, pulled, and after skating pre-game he withdrew from the line-up. Without him, Toronto lost 11-3. Esposito had five points. Derek Sanderson scored a hattrick — or I guess notched.

“I was eating my heart out not to be out there,” Quinn told The Globe and Mail. “I’ve never wanted to play in a game as much as that one.”

Louis Cauz was the reporter. Quinn had a lot more to say, too, and Cauz listened. The defenceman was wearing — sorry, the truculent defenceman was wearing a bowler hat, Kelly-green, and a shamrock pinned to his tie, and he was biting a black cigar.

He said the Bruins were a bunch of back-stabbers. “You can’t turn your back on them or they’ll give it to you, and good.” Well, not all of them. Some of them. He wasn’t a fist fighter, he said. “But I don’t intend to take any guff from the Bruins.”

Regarding the Orr incident:

From where I was, all I could see was Orr jabbing away with his stick at Gamble and I wanted to clear him out of the goal. I didn’t attempt to deliberately injure him. But if I didn’t do my job, clearing people away from the front of the net, the fans would soon be on my back.”

And … kicking? You … booted, um, Orr? “Yeah,” Quinn said, “I gave him a kind of a half-hearted kick. But it was in the seat of the pants. If I wanted to hurt him I could have. But that’s not my style, kicking a guy. I guess I shouldn’t have kicked at him.”

But Orr did kick him first. Quinn had a bruise on his stomach to prove that. “Sure, I know he’s a star” he allowed, “and I’ll never be one-third the player he is, but when he’s messing around in front of our goal, I’m going to hit him.”

Quinn talked, too, about wrangling linesman Brent Casselman (“like a dust rag,” Louis Cauz wrote). Quinn was preparing to fight Bruins Awrey and Sanderson when Casselman grabbed his punching arm. That made him mad; also, turns out he had a phobia involving just this kind of restraint, dating back to 1965, when he was playing for Tulsa’s Oilers and there was a fight and a linesman dove at him and knocked him backwards and his — Quinn’s — ankle snapped.

Leaf captain George Armstrong said that Quinn’s value to the Leafs was beyond estimating. He wasn’t any Doug Harvey, maybe, but a lot of guys played a lot better when he was on the ice. Quinn was hoping to get back there soon, he said. He was sure the Leafs were going to make the playoffs. And he hoped they’d be playing the Bruins.

Which is what happened. And 17 days later, when the Leafs returned to Boston to launch their Stanley-Cup campaign, Quinn was back. Murray Oliver, who also died last week, on the same day as Quinn, was a left winger for Toronto that year. He expected a rough series, the Bruins were a tough team, which was fine with the Leafs, they’d answer the bell, though they intended on playing a checking style to slow down Boston’s big shooters. Assistant GM King Clancy said Toronto had to win an early road game. “The way I look at it, we’ve got to win there. If we can’t, we won’t be in it.”

Figuring into the first paragraph of Rex MacLeod’s account in The Globe and Mail was the phrase barbaric behaviour. The second had primitive slugging and punching debacle. Crude brawling followed, along with assault-and-battery style, fisticuffs, undercurrent of bitterness, hostile armistice, violence continued, slugging duel, flareups with highsticks, elbows and even head-butting featured, and several fans reached over the boards and clawed at Kennedy while he was fighting with the two goalies.

The Bruins won, 10-0. Quinn’s mighty hit came in the second period. MacLeod classified it as a head-on collision, though in The Boston Globe Tom Fitzgerald called it a premeditated action in which the big and awkward young defenceman flattened Bobby Orr with an elbow along the boards.

Was he only dazed or knocked unconscious? He had to be helped from the ice. He told Harry Sinden he wanted to get back out there for the third period. Instead he went to Mass General. “We figured it was better he go to hospital and let a neurologist look into his eyes.” His nose was cut and his neck was sore. X-rays didn’t reveal any deep damage but the doctors did decide to keep him overnight.

Quinn would later say that it was a clean check.” Maybe people thought it was dirty, but like I said, I like to hit.”

Referee John Ashley gave him five minutes for elbowing. A shoe hit him as he entered the penalty box, and he was splashed by a soft drink and (Louis Cauz) “then was punched in the back of the head by a fan.”

Quinn swung his stick to defend and maybe revenge himself and the police moved in and then the glass was smashed and it cut some fans and Quinn had to be escorted by policemen, ten of them, to the Leafs’ dressing room as fans tried to punch him, spat, and swung their coats.

Sounds like there should have been some kind of disciplinary hearing after the game, before the next one, but there only seems to have been more talking.

Bruins’ president Weston W. Adams, Jr. said that if the Leafs were smart, they’d never play Quinn in Boston ever again. “They’ll kill him,” he warned. The police were concerned, too. “The fans here don’t like anybody to touch Orr,” an anonymous officer explained. “He’s their Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong rolled into one. To me, though, it looked like a clean check.”

Stephen Brunt explores the case over five pages in Searching For Bobby Orr (2006). Quinn is big, mean, slow-footed there. He recalls,

He didn’t have his head up. So I thought, Well, I have a chance to throw a check on him here, and stepped right into him, and he didn’t see it coming. I caught him with my shoulder.

“I’m afraid there are things I don’t remember,” Orr professes in Orr: My Story (2013). “Pat Quinn put a pretty good lick on me.” Doctors thought he had a concussion and Orr concedes that he probably did — the only one he suffered one in his career, he says. “I never suffered any lingering effects or showed any of the symptoms we normally associate with a concussion, so I guess I must have been lucky.”

He does recall returning to the Bruins’ hotel, where a guy approached him in the lobby — a rather tough looking “gentleman” — and offered to take care of Quinn. No, thanks, Orr told him.

Quinn and Orr were both in the line-up for the next game, though contemporary accounts note that Orr sat out the third period with a headache. Did he consider retaliating before he left? The writers wanted to know, of course. “I had my head down,” Orr told them. So all was forgiven? “Who knows,” Orr said. And grinned. The Bruins were pretty satisfied, all round. This game, the final score was 7-0.

That’s pretty much all. By the time the series switched to Toronto, the papers were deeming Orr “recovered.” The fact that he slept for the whole flight north didn’t cause too much concern — Orr always slept on planes.

The Leafs played a little better at home; they still lost, by scores of 3-4 and 2-3. Orr, whom fans usually applauded in Toronto, got boos in both games. “The reasons,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “were obscure, unless they resented that he was knocked unconscious in the first game of the series and should apologize for that faux pas.” When it was all over, Quinn and Orr exchanged a quick handclasp.

Ten minutes later, the Leafs fired Punch Imlach from both of his jobs, coach and GM. That was a bit of a shocker. Even the Bruins were surprised. “His heart is broken now,” Harry Sinden said. “They could have waited til the loss to us eased off. This is tough.

“They don’t like Punch, most of the players,” offered a nameless Leaf source. “He’s been rubbing them all the wrong way for a long time.”

The Bruins faced Montreal next. They had to wait a bit for the Canadiens, which was fine. Orr was back to feeling not so great. He missed practice, his neck was stiff, headed to hospital for another check-up. He was feeling better by April 10, which is when the semi-final between the old rivals got underway. It was a close series, with Montreal prevailing in six games. (They beat St. Louis, after that, to win the Stanley Cup.)

For the Leafs, all that was left for them was the team banquet. They gathered in the Caesar Room at a restaurant called Ports of Call. Imlach attended for the first time in 11 years, with his wife Dodo — previously he’d always felt like his presence would dampen the players’ spirit.