How Pat Quinn Got Thin

It’s no surprise that Pat Quinn, who’s been both a player and a coach during his long association with hockey, knows a thing or two about toughness. The 61-year-old coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs learned that to survive in hockey, you must erect a shield around yourself, deflecting all the pain and physical adversity associated with the sport.

“As an athlete, you create a feeling of indestructibility,” says Quinn. “You have to believe you’re invulnerable, that nothing is ever going to happen to you.” It’s a philosophy Quinn learned at an early age, playing the game on the outdoor rinks of Hamilton’s blue-collar east end. It carried him through nine unspectacular years as a rugged defenceman with several National Hockey League teams, including the Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta (now Calgary) Flames. And he’s employed the same attitude in his 20-plus years of coaching.

Heart condition forces change
But in spring 2002, when his health broke down, the big Irishman realized it was time to admit he wasn’t invulnerable. Faced with his own mortality, Quinn had two choices: either let down his shield or be carried off on it.

During thplay-offs against the Carolina Hurricanes that year, Quinn was hospitalized overnight with a heart condition brought on by a number of factors associated with an unhealthy lifestyle: overwork, stress, poor eating habits and sky-rocketing cholesterol. The Leafs were on the verge of the Stanley Cup finals; the coach was on the brink of a heart attack.

“I was having trouble sleeping,” recalls Quinn two years after his health scare, as he takes a break from hitting a bucket of balls at a Toronto driving range. “I’d wake up and my heart would be racing. I was getting rundown without sleep.” Eventually, he shared his concerns with the team’s physician who, after taking his pulse, immediately ordered a hospital visit.

It turned out to be arrhythmia – a condition where an irregular heartbeat decreases the efficiency of the heart’s pumping action, reducing blood flow to the body. On it’s own, the condition isn’t deadly. But coupled with poor lifestyle habits – overeating, lack of exercise, smoking and very high cholesterol – it’s extremely dangerous. Quinn’s heart wasn’t pumping effectively; blood was congealing and the heart was swelling. “I was in the early stage of heart failure,” he says.

Joe Bowen, the Leafs’ long-time radio and television play-by-play man and friend of Quinn’s, was in Carolina when the coach’s fragile health became front-page news. “After the first play-off game, we went out to eat, and Pat ordered a huge steak,” recalls Bowen. “He mentioned something about being tired but, naturally, we just associated it with the stress of coaching. Next morning, we were shocked to find out he was in the hospital. He had never let on anything was wrong. He didn’t want his health to become a distraction to the team.”

Quinn returned to the bench during that series against Carolina, which ended the same way all Leaf seasons have ended since 1967 – without a Stanley Cup. Once the season was finished, he decided it was time to seek ways of improving the team and, more important, of taking control of his health.

His whole approach to living had to undergo a massive change, beginning with his diet.

“I was never a breakfast person. I’d get up and have a coffee. If I had lunch, it was usually fast food,” recalls Quinn. For dinner, he’d eat with – and like – the players. “I’d eat the same quantities of food as the players but wasn’t doing anything physically active.” Salads, baked potatoes, pastas, sauces loaded with salt, chicken, steak and fish washed down with beer.

Every night, Quinn was consuming a high-cholesterol, high-calorific meal, but, except for skating with the players in practice, he was mostly sedentary.

Next page: Poor lifestyle leads to disease

Adding to his health woes were the high stress levels associated with coaching in a town where hockey is king. Toronto fans live and (inevitably) die with their beloved team. And to feed the fan’s voracious appetite for all things blue and white, there are four newspapers and numerous television and radio outlets, all scrambling to cover the team’s every move.

“The media’s tough here,” affirms the coach. “We’ve had an excellent team for six straight years but we haven’t won the Cup, so they get after us,” a fact which, no doubt, explains his sometimes testy relationship with the local press.

Besides the nightly media grilling (which Bowen refers to as the Spanish Inquisition), there’s the constant travel, game-day preparations and, after losses, trying to determine what went wrong. “Sometimes, I go home and stay awake until 2:30 in the morning, wondering why we lost. When you work hard and the players work hard and you still lose, that’s when the stress is greatest.”

Choices take toll
It’s not uncommon for people in high-pressure careers to resort to poor lifestyle habits, such as eating, drinking and smoking, as a means of coping. Quinn was no different and, over time, this unhealthy lifestyle took its toll. At six foot three, Quinn’s playing weight had been about 220 pounds. Right before his hospitalization, he had ballooned to over 300.

“I had become something I’d always dreaded – a fat ex-athlete.” Besides the weight gain, he had other risk factors that exacerbated his heart condition: he was still smoking his famous cigars at a rate of five or six a day, he had a history of heart disease in his family and his cholesterol level was through the roof.

Failure to recognize the warning signs and make significant lifestyle changes are the major reasons why people are struck with heart failure or stroke, says Liz Helden, a lipid nurse specialist at Chedoke Hospital in Hamilton and co-chair of the Canadian Lipid Nurse Network.

Eating right and exercising are so important for everyone over 50, according to Helden. We should also pay strict attention to our cholesterol levels. “If you’re serious about preventing a cardiovascular event, you should be aware of your cholesterol levels,” she says. “If yours  are above normal, do something to control or manage them.”

Helden suggests that people over 50 who have risk factors (smoking, family history of heart disease, diabetes) should be checked at least once a year. It’s simply a matter of going to your doctor and getting a blood test. “Unfortunately,” she says, “it often takes a medical event to wake people up.”

Quinn concurs: “I probably wouldn’t have changed without the health scare.” He feels lucky to have escaped a heart attack: he wants to be around to enjoy life with wife Sandra, their two daughters and three grandchildren. “When I was playing hockey, I missed out on a lot of family time. I don’t want to miss seeing my grandkids grow up,” he says.

So he took charge of his health, revamped his diet and instituted a workout regimen. Since that fateful day in 2002, he’s lost 65 pounds and would like to lose a few more to get back to his playing weight. More important, he’s lowered his cholesterol through diet and physical activity and with medication. He looks great and feels better equipped to handle the pressures of coaching in Toronto.

Next page: Staying the course, and the results

“I still eat with the players but I’m much more selective now,” he says, explaining his diet as a balanced one – “not one of those gimmicky diets that seem fashionable today.” Working with a dietitian, he’s following a healthy eating plan, balancing his portions throughout the day so he’s not hungry at night anymore.

His meals include all the food groups and are low in salt. “A dietitian will provide realistic advice on how to develop a reduced-cholesterol meal plan,” says Helden.

Quinn realized his diet plan wouldn’t work without exercise. Because his knees can’t handle jogging or racquet sports, he instituted a walking program, which he complements with regular workouts, including weight-bearing exercises.

The results are obvious. “It’s night and day. He’s lost a whole person,” says Bowen, referring to Quinn’s dramatic weight loss. “He had to get a new wardrobe but I told him not to throw his old clothes away because I may need them soon.”

Major changes – great results
Quinn quit cigars too, breaking a cherished habit he’d cultivated since the age of 25. “My assistant coach Rick Ley still smokes cigars and sometimes when I smell the smoke, it gets to me a little bit.” Plus, he’s replaced beer – that traditional beverage of choice for all hockey players – with red wine.

“I feel much healthier, more energetic and I’m sleeping well again,” says Quinn, now fourth all-time in coaching wins. And as his fitness levels improve, so has his desire to remain in hockey. “I can’t picture myself retiring. I don’t spend all my time on the golf course and I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I still love my job and I’m not ready to step away.” He points out that Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s most successful coach, stayed behind the bench until his early 70s.

When the day comes (he’s in the final year of his contract), he’d like to stay in hockey in some sort of consulting capacity. But watching the lean and healthy Pat Quinn smack a few more golf balls off the tee, he certainly seems healthy enough to continue coaching the Leafs indefinitely.

After all, it’s been 37 years since the Leafs last won the Cup, so Quinn needs to stay in shape – he still has work to do.