Pat Quinn (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Before you rail against the coach's challenge and how it has changed the complexion of the playoffs, consider that two blown offside calls in the 1980 Stanley Cup final robbed the Philadelphia Flyers a chance at the Stanley Cup.
Sadly, we cannot ask Pat Quinn what he thinks of the NHL’s implementation of a coach’s challenge for offside calls. As it was with almost any subject from World War II strategy to the neutral zone trap, it would have been very interesting to hear the former coaching great’s perspective on it.
Your trusty correspondent has been covering this game for almost 30 years and they have never seen a coach who had a deeper disdain for officials than Quinn did. And the roots of that go back to May 24, 1980. And if you want to talk about how one of these overturned calls can change a game or a series, consider the fact that not one, but two were not overturned that day had an enormous impact on a series, a career and a legacy.
Despite there being some truly compelling hockey played over the past five days, the playoff storyline has been hijacked by the fact that four coach’s challenges have resulted in three goals being overturned because they were preceded by offside zone entries. This has caused all kinds of chatter among fandom and hockey people alike, with a good number of people incensed that seemingly inconsequential hair-width offsides are wiping out goals and changing the complexion of games.
There are those who pine for the good old days when a linesman would blow an offside call and everyone would just live with the consequences. We’re fairly certain that if Quinn were still alive, he would not be part of that group.
Hockey fans remember May 24, 1980 for Bob Nystrom’s goal in overtime that clinched the New York Islanders first of four straight Stanley Cups. Quinn always remembered it as the day that most definitely one blown offside, and possibly another, robbed his Philadelphia Flyers the chance to win the Stanley Cup. As it turns out, it would have been the only NHL championship of Quinn’s career.
Now there’s no guarantee the Flyers would have won the Cup in 1980, even if linesman Leon Stickle had blown his whistle in the first period and then again in overtime on goals that would have undoubtedly been contested had there been a coach’s challenge. But had the Flyers won that day, they would have forced Game 7, which would have been played at the Spectrum.
Instead, the Flyers skated off with the Stanley Cup and it always stuck in Quinn’s craw that he was jobbed by the officials. And he had a pretty darn good case.
The first occurred in the first period when the Islanders went ahead on a 2-1 goal by Brent Sutter. As you can see by the replay, the Clarke Gillies drop pass to Butch Goring was clearly offside. Check out the goal at the 38-second mark of this video:
Then in overtime on Nystrom’s goal, it’s close enough that it would have merited a long video review and might have been overturned. There are some people to this day who insist it was offside:
The point is, the overtime that produced Nystrom’s goal would never have occurred if not for the blown offside call earlier in the game. And if you’re lamenting the time it’s taking and the effect the coach’s challenges have had on these playoffs, well, the 1980 Stanley Cup final is the result of not getting it right.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that the Flyers win Game 6, then go on to take Game 7 on home ice. The Flyers, owners of an NHL-record 35-game unbeaten streak that season, were 27-5-8 at home during the regular season and 9-2 in the playoffs. If that one blown call could have been reviewed and overturned, perhaps the Islanders only win three straight Stanley Cups instead of four. Does that make them a dynasty? Maybe, maybe not.
And if the Flyers win that series, Quinn gets his Stanley Cup and his legacy is forever changed. Yes, Quinn went on to win an Olympic gold medal and a World Junior Championship, but the lack of a Stanley Cup has always been the gaping hole in his coaching record. And yes, that matters. Ken Hitchcock and Mike Babcock could very well end their careers with only one Stanley Cup as well and they’ll go down as two of the greatest coaches in NHL history.
When the NHL makes rules, it does not do so arbitrarily or willy-nilly. It instituted a coach’s challenge because that’s what people in the game wanted. It’s probably the first time in league history that people have complained that the NHL is getting something right. And we should all be prepared for it to happen in overtime of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. Because if there’s one thing with the NHL, it’s that the worst-case possible scenario almost always becomes reality.
And for those who lament that these “ticky-tack” calls are deciding games and possibly series, well, is there really a difference if a player is a millimeter or a foot offside? If we're going to ignore the close ones, that's the beginning of a mighty slippery slope. It’s still offside isn’t it? Isn't this why the rule was implemented in the first place? Yes, it takes some of the life out of the flow of the game. But the NHL gets it right and it still can't seem to escape criticism. So if you want to go back to the way things were before coach’s challenges, just be prepared for the possibility of watching your team lose the Stanley Cup and possibly have history altered because of someone’s human error.
Because that’s exactly what happened to Pat Quinn and the Philadelphia Flyers 36 years ago.