When he knocked Bobby Orr out cold during a 1969 playoff game, the truculent Leaf nearly incited a riot at Boston Garden.
“By National Hockey League standards he is slow and a trifle awkward,” was the Globe and Mail’s assessment of rookie Maple Leafs defenceman Pat Quinn in December 1968. “But Paddy or Lurch, nicknames his teammates have given him, is tough, honest, and is always digging away. He doesn’t possess the surplus talent that would allow him to play it easy.”
Decades before serving as the team’s head coach and general manager, Quinn, who passed away Sunday at age 71, spent two seasons as a rugged Leafs blueliner. The highlight of his Toronto playing career was a big hit that levelled a star player and caused a near-riot.
After missing the playoffs the previous year, the Leafs faced the Boston Bruins in the 1969 quarterfinals. The opening match at Boston Garden on April 2, 1969 was a fiasco. The Bruins won 10-0, but not before both teams racked up 38 penalties totalling 132 minutes, of which the Leafs earned 76.
During the first period, Bruins fans chanted “Get Quinn” in reference to a recent incident. During a March 15 match, Quinn cross-checked Bruins star Bobby Orr into the Leafs’ goalposts. Orr wrestled Quinn to the ice. Both received major penalties for their transgressions, and Quinn injured his groin.
Late in the second period, with the Bruins up 6-0, Orr rushed down the ice along the boards and lost the puck in his skates. While Orr’s head was down, Quinn nailed him with a hard elbow check that knocked the Bruin out cold.
The hometown crowd erupted in anger. While Orr left the ice for examination, someone tossed a shoe at Quinn as he headed to the penalty box. When Quinn sat down, fans splashed their drinks on him. Five minutes of chaos followed as Quinn and his teammates swung their sticks at the crowd. After police moved in to break it up, the glass shattered, and when Quinn was escorted to the dressing room, Bruins loyalists leaned over the police escort to punch him. They spat, swung their coats, and called him an “animal.”
NHL referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison praised the police officer in charge. “I understand he lost his false teeth in the scuffle and was cut around the mouth from the shattered glass,” he told the Toronto Star. “It was an ugly scene but would have been much worse if the police had not acted promptly.” Another officer, who wished to remain anonymous, felt Quinn should have been removed immediately after the hit, given the Boston fans’ lack of tolerance for anyone touching Orr.
“It was a nice clean check,” Quinn told the Star. “Maybe the people thought it was dirty. But like I said, I like to hit.” Quinn denied that he had delivered the hit in retaliation for losing the March fight to Orr, and said he hadn’t intended to injure him. Bruins coach Harry Sinden felt the blame was partly Orr’s: “When you get your head down in this league you have to expect those lumps.” Orr was sent to hospital and diagnosed with a possible concussion.
Bruins president Weston Adams, Jr. feared that fans would kill Quinn. “If they were smart they’d never play Quinn again in Boston,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I was afraid something like this might happen.” Sinden and Bruins general manager Milt Schmidt advised their players to ignore Quinn in order to avoid further ugliness.
When Orr was released from hospital the next day, hours before game two, he headed to the team’s hotel. There he had an encounter that confirmed Adams’s fears.
As I entered the lobby, a rather tough looking “gentleman,” for lack of a better word, walked up to me. I had no idea how he found out where we were staying. To this day, I don’t know who he was or what his affiliations were. However, as he came up beside me, he asked, in a very low voice, “Do you want me to take care of Pat Quinn?” It was kind of a scary moment, because the look in his eyes and his general demeanour made me think the guy meant to do some serious damage. I looked back at him and said “No thanks … I’ll take care of him myself.” He walked away and that was the end of it.
Orr played two periods that night before a lingering headache made him skip the final 20 minutes. While there were chants of “We want Quinn,” none were menacing. Six policemen accompanied Quinn to the penalty box when he got into some on-ice mischief. They moved aside quickly after a fan pointed out that Quinn had more protection than the president of the United States. Orr told the press he had no intention of retaliating; when asked if he thought the incident itself had been an act of retaliation, he said, grinning, “Who knows?”
The Leafs lost the second game 7-0. They dropped the remaining two games of the series, during the last of which Orr and Quinn shook hands. Leafs coach and general manager Punch Imlach was dismissed immediately after the sweep. Quinn remained with Toronto until he was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1970 expansion draft.
Memories of the Orr-Quinn collision lingered on. The game was the first future Star columnist Rosie DiManno watched in full, and it stayed with her decades later.
That encounter, on that night, resonates still down through the years, as something more than a mere game, even a playoff game. It was war. It was hideously unfair combat: the pitifully aging Leafs; the swaggering, virile Bruins.
Yet there was Quinn, fearless and defiant and far beyond his best-before date. Blood on his face, as disheveled as a brush-cut would allow, and not giving an inch.
Additional material from Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr (Toronto: Viking, 2013); the December 9, 1968, April 3, 1969, and April 4, 1969 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 17, 1969, April 3, 1969, and June 25, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.