That's the question so often asked in the world of sports these days, and more especially, in the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ever since the last Stanley Cup victory in 1967, the loyal fans of the Leafs have been asking that question with only a shoulder shrug in response. There is really nothing anyone can do about what could have been. The past is the past, but there are plenty of opinions on events that changed the course of the team's future, and if the events had happened differently.
And there have been plenty of what-ifs for this team over the past 10 years or so; like what if they never traded away budding superstars like Brad Boyes or Tukka Rask? What if they had a first round pick in this year's draft? But the latter is a question for another day.
There is one question, though, that has been asked many a time that takes Leaf fans back to a better time. A time where winning was the norm, and the playoffs were a time to get excited in Toronto, not to hang up your Leafs jersey for another year.
A time when Pat Quinn was the coach.
He was hired in 1998 after the Leafs had gone a dismal 30-43-9 with only 69 points the season before. His impact was immediate, quickly turning the team from a pretender to a contender.
The Leafs previous style was not working and Quinn, over the course of just one season, turned them from a struggling group of individuals to a team-first, scoring machine with a swagger that commanded respect.
They finished Quinn's first season with a record of 45-30-7 and 97 points, fourth best in the Eastern Conference. A 28-point difference from the season before, but that was just in the regular season.
The real magic came when the playoffs began, as the Leafs played their way into the Eastern Conference Finals against the Buffalo Sabres. They lost the series in five games, but the one-year transformation was complete and Quinn was in full control of the team.
And he had the city in a frenzy of excitement.
He was a runner-up for the Jack Adams Trophy, and was rewarded by being named the general manager along with his coaching duties.
It was officially Quinn's team now, and the city was already in love with the fiery teddy bear that was the Leafs coach now knew that he was in full control as the GM. His second season in Toronto was even better, as his team finished third in the East with 100 points.
They lost in the second-round of the playoffs to the New Jersey Devils, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but Leaf Nation was alive with realistic dreams of a championship in Toronto once again after that successful 1999-2000 season.
At this point Quinn might as well have been the Mayor of Toronto.
In the next three seasons the team finished with 90, 100, and 98 points, making it to at least the second-round in two of those three years, including yet another trip to the Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002, which they lost in a hard-fought, six-game classic.
In those first five seasons Quinn had a record of 214-139-57, two trips to the Conference Finals, and the entire city in the palm of his hand. He had a lineup of grizzled old men and up-and-coming rookies, fused with a solid veteran presence in the net, and a determination that was second to none.
Quinn just didn't want to win. He expected it.
The Leafs were finally back to being one of the best teams in the NHL, year in and year out.
But after the 2002-03 season, Quinn was replaced as the GM by John Ferguson Jr. However, Quinn remained as the team's head coach. The Leafs brass felt it was best that someone else came in and looked after the management of the team, while Quinn focused solely on the team on the ice.
That's when things started to change.
Sure, the 2003-04 regular season was the Leafs best under Quinn, finishing with 103 points before losing in the second-round to the Philadelphia Flyers, but there were rumblings of a rift between Quinn and Ferguson about the decisions being made.
After the 2004-05 lockout season the Leafs and Quinn returned in 2005 looking to make it to the postseason for the seventh straight time.
It was a tough year for the team, as they lost Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, and Ed Belfour to season-ending injuries (all three signed the season before by Ferguson) and looked to be out of the playoff picture with 12 games remaining. But on the shoulders of the many young players that were drafted by Quinn, as well as Quinn’s trusty veterans, the Leafs went on a 9-2-1 run to finish the campaign and missed the playoffs by just two points.
It was a tough pill to swallow, as it was the first time under Quinn that they finished outside of the playoff picture, but the incredible run at the end that was done without the help of three key members kept the city hopeful for the following season.
There were rumors that Ferguson was going to fire Quinn, something that was figured to have been the plan ever since JFJ became the GM of the team due to the friction between the two, but many Leaf players, including Mats Sundin, publicly supported their coach.
The majority of Leaf fans agreed. One bad season after six great ones was not enough to fire a coach, especially one who was as successful as Quinn.
Or so they thought.
Immediately following the end of that season in 2006, even before the playoffs had begun, Quinn was fired.
He had led his team to the playoffs six out of seven seasons, appeared in two Conference Finals, and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy. He finished with a record of 300-196-78 and a 41-39 record in the playoffs.
His players loved him and the city adored him, but because of one season where the team missed the playoffs by a mere two points, Quinn was shown the door with a simple "thank you for your contributions to the team."
He did absolutely everything you could ask for from a coach, earning the love and respect of everyone who crossed his path. He did what he was supposed to do and then some.
So what if Pat Quinn was never fired? What if Ferguson Jr. was never hired as GM? What if there was no friction between the two? What if Quinn was able to stay on with the team for even just one more season?
It's almost impossible to say what would have been if Quinn was allowed to stay on as the coach of the Leafs. Sure, the team's veteran players were only getting older and the salary cap meant that the Leafs could no longer afford any player at any time. Sure, the heart and soul players like Darcy Tucker, Curtis Joseph, and Mats Sundin who willed this team to so many wins are long gone.
And sure, the league was smack-dab in the middle of a boom of young talent coming in and taking over, but did Quinn really deserve to be let go? We all know the disaster of a job that Ferguson did as the GM of the team, trading away prospects and draft picks for older players that never really panned out.
So the question of whether bringing in Ferguson was the right move will always remain. He was the reason Quinn was fired; he fired him. He and the higher-ups on the Leafs wanted to put their own stamp on the club.
A stamp that since then has withered and been all but tossed in the trash.
His firing had no merit. Plain and simple.
It may not have made a difference whether Quinn stayed or not, but the Leafs haven't made the playoffs since his departure. In fact, every season since his departure has gotten worse and worse as the team becomes gradually more of a laughing-stock.
He should have been given at least one more shot. After all he had done, one more season with the club was not too much to ask.
There are no more 90-point seasons now. There are no more chants of “we want the Cup” ringing from the crowd at the ACC. The playoffs are simply a dream these days. And though Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have come in and earned some admiration from Leaf fans in their short time as the current coach and GM, there hasn't been anyone as loved and respected as Pat Quinn.
And no one as deserving.
It's a different team now and almost every player that was a member in Quinn's days is long gone. It's a new team now. A younger team. A worse team.
And say what you want about the new NHL, Quinn just had a way of making things work with the players on that team.
The Leafs only remaining game against a Western Conference team this season is against Quinn and his new team, the Edmonton Oilers—one of only two teams worse than the Leafs.
On March 13 he will make his first trip back to the Air Canada Center since standing behind the home team's bench, chewing his gum ever so vigorously, and wearing his heart on his sleeve for the blue and white for seven fantastic seasons.
He will no doubt receive a standing ovation from the ACC crowd, a small gesture of thanks for everything he did during his tenure with the Leafs. He certainly deserves one, at the very least.
While the thousands of fans stand and salute the man that was so successful behind the bench in Toronto, there will no doubt be a video-montage playing back the memories of the days when this was Quinn's team.
A time when fans cheered on a winning team. A time when Toronto was a tough place to play. A time when the mention of the Toronto Maple Leafs wasn't followed with a sarcastic laugh.
The good old days.
What if indeed.
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