TIMMINS – Despite being perhaps the best offensive defenceman of his era — some will say of all time — it’s the championships that still stand out for Paul Coffey when he looks back on his long and illustrious NHL career.
He won four Stanley Cups, three alongside Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in 1984, ’85 and ’87, and one more skating with Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991.
But like with his children, don’t ask him to pick a favourite
“I was lucky enough to win four championships, and from the first one in Edmonton to the last one in Pittsburgh, they’re all very, very special,” said Coffey, who was in town Sunday serving up tales from years past and offering advice to young hockey players at the first Timmins Rock Celebrity Sports Dinner/Fundraiser at the Porcupine Dante Club.
“I’m excited to be here,” Coffey told The Daily Press. “I’ve never been to Timmins before. It’s a place that my dad had told me about for years, that it’s deep and rich in hockey history. Just reading the amount of players that played here is pretty incredible.”
Prior to the evening speaking to a sold-out crowd at the Dante Club, Coffey dropped the ceremonial first puck as the Rock welcomed the Powassan Voodoos in a Northern Ontario Jr. A Hockey League match-up at historic McIntyre Arena.
The building was built in 1938 and was the hockey training grounds for a countless list of future NHL stars including Frank and Peter Mahovlich, Allan Stanley, Pete Babando and Bill Barilko.
During his 21-year playing career, Coffey became well-acquainted with more recent NHL stars like hometown hero Steve Sullivan and former Philadelphia Flyers captain and current TSN analyst Dave Poulin.
“Oh my God, a lot of guys: Sullivan, Poulin,” recalled Coffey. “I never played against big Frank (Mahovlich), but I played against Hector Marini, Shean Donovan, all those guys, it’s great.”
Despite a back-and-forth affair on Sunday, the Rock were unable to pull out the win as the NOJHL-leading Voodoos seized a 5-2 victory.
The Voodoos got two goals and an assist from Tyson Gilmour, the son of Doug Gilmour — another player and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Coffey also encountered often in his playing days.
Though the hometown team couldn’t pull out the win, Coffey was impressed with the level of play and enjoyed the game between two NOJHL heavyweights.
“The kids were working hard. They looked like they got a little anxiety out today. They look like they’re ready for the playoffs,” said Coffey, getting into the role of analyst. “They’re playing Cochrane in the (second) round which should be good, and hopefully they’ll get a shot a these guys (the Voodoos) in the next round.
“They had a long time not having a team here, 18 years without hockey, and to finally get them back in the last couple of years, it’s just great to see the fan support. It’s a beautiful rink, a lot of history and it was a great game to watch earlier today.”
After their game, the Rock players took their hustle from the rink to the kitchen, helping waiters serve bread and top up water to people in attendance at the Dante Club.
Coffey won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 1985 and 1986 with the Oilers, and again in 1995 as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
He still holds over 20 NHL records, including his epic march past the iconic Bobby Orr to a single-season high for a defenceman of 48 goals in 1985-86. Coffey’s remarkable total of 138 points that campaign fell just one shy of Orr’s record, achieved in 1970-71 with the Boston Bruins.
Throughout the entire pre-dinner cocktail hour, Coffey mingled and remained accessible to all who wished to shake hands, take pictures and talk about the glory days.
Among them was Timmins hockey fan Seb Vachon, who arrived sporting a classic blue and orange Oilers jersey with Coffey’s signature No. 7 sewn across the back.
“I watched him play a lot of games,” said the 33-year-old Vachon. “I was Detroit fan for a little while, but his Oilers days are what I remember most.
“He had such as awesome skating stride and he was an awesome player. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get the jersey signed.”
Vachon joked he’s always had a special connection with Coffey, having used the star defenceman’s signature stick curve back throughout his minor hockey career.
“Now it’s a little bit too much (of a curve) for me,” said Vachon with a laugh.
Indeed, Coffey knows how hockey-crazed people in the North can be having experienced it first hand when he played parts of two seasons in junior with the then-OHA’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds between 1978-80.
“Most towns for sure in Northern Ontario love their sports, right?” offered Coffey, who was raised in the Weston neighbourhood of Toronto. “Not just hockey, they love their sports, and like I said, this place is deep in history.”
Coffey quipped that he doesn’t have much spare time these days, raising three children (a 21-year-old daughter and 14- and 19-year-old sons) in uptown Toronto, and having a hand in multiple businesses including a car dealership, a car wash and storage.
He still actively follows the NHL, finally able to relish simply enjoying the game from the outside looking in.
Being in Toronto, he’s got a soft spot for his hometown Maple Leafs, one team he ironically never had the chance to play for during a career which lasted from 1980 to 2001 with stops in nine different cities along the way.
Coffey likes the direction the young Maple Leafs are taking, but had a more nuanced take when it came to the way the game is played now compared to just 20 or 30 years ago when the Oilers and Penguins were lighting up the league.
“I’m just basically a fan of the game,” offered Coffey. “I want the game to be fast and tough and with hitting. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of that in it anymore, but it’s still fun to watch.”
But he pulled no punches when it came to the current and now longstanding legal battle pitting the NHL against a group of former hockey players, doctors and scientists who allege the league withheld knowledge of the potentially devastating effects of concussions and in-game head trauma.
“Go do something else (if you don’t like it). It’s a tough sport,” said Coffey.
Photos courtesy of Gilles Portelance