By Michael Lewis
Here I was, standing in the coaches’ room at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y. and getting a verbal smackdown from the coach of the Rochester Americans, Joe Crozier.
It wasn’t that I misquoted him.
It wasn’t that I heavily criticized him.
No, it was because I did not use all of his juicy quotes he gave me after the Amerks lost an American Hockey League game during the 1983-84 season.
That was the type of man Joe Crozier was. Not only did he wear his heart on his sleeve, he put his heart into everything he did.
Crozier passed away on Tuesday. He was 93.
He was a mensch and a character with so much character.
To many long-time hockey fans, Crozier is best known for creating “The French Connection” line for the Buffalo Sabres. He also coached the Amerks to AHL championships in 1965, 1966 and 1968 and reached the Calder Cup finals five times. He was named a charter member of the Amerks Hall of Fame in 1986.
For a legendary coaching degree, Crozier deserved all the praise thrown his way.
I had the privilege of covering the Amerks over four seasons (yes, I can write about other sports) before returning to the metropolitan area. I wrote about Crozier and the team during the 1983-84, a year after Mike Keenan guided the Amerks to Calder Cup crown.
Now, that was a tough act to follow.
Crozier directed the team to the league finals, losing to the Maine Mariners.
While winning and losing is important – after all, this is sports – I remember Joe Crozier just as much as being a human being, not just a great coach.
And about that post-game lambasting I got. I can’t recall exactly what game he gave me those great lines, but I do know it was after a defeat. I used two of the three quotes. I think one of them was that he thought his team skated around as though the players wore cement galoshes. It was a great line.
The others were pretty damn good as well.
But two out of three wasn’t good enough for Joe Crozier.
I explained to him that some of the players had pretty decent quotes and I had a certain length to the story.
As a coach, Crozier was fun to cover in so many ways.
You could ask him a hard question and he would give you a good answer.
Sometimes all you had to do to ask a basic question and he would come up with a world-class reply.
In the short time I knew Crozier, I got to know him very well.
Yes, we had our ups and our downs, like many a writer and coach will have, but all in all, the relationship was a healthy one.
I got to know his wife Bonnie and even did a story about her attending home hockey games during the playoffs. It made the front page of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in its May 8, 1984 editions.
“I hadn’t seen any third period of the playoffs until Sunday night,” Bonnie told me. “Once the score is tied, I leave my seat. If we’re a head by one goal, I’ll leave as well.
“I only know what happens by listening to the crowd. I pray a lot.”
We got along well. In fact, Joe jokingly asked us several times whether we were having an affair.
Hey, sometimes personalities mesh.
Like I said, Crozier took many things, perhaps everything, to heart.
After a disheartening loss to the Baltimore Skipjacks in January 1984, Joe was about to depart the team bus after it pulled up to its hotel. He said, “Thanks for the effort, guys!”
He was being sarcastic.
A few weeks later, Crozier wound up in the hospital due to chest pains, dizziness and exhaustion. At least that’s what the official line was. It was later revealed that he had been going through depression at times.
Crozier recently received national publicity and a $200 fine on his televised segment on fighting techniques on the ice.
The Amerks head coach wasn’t taking any calls and the Amerks weren’t giving up much more information.
As an ambitious reporter, I tried to get an exclusive interview with Joe. I went to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, bought some flowers in the gift shop, and tried to find his room, saying I was a friend that wanted to wish him well.
I could not discover his room, but it was a good strategy to get the story.
I called Bonnie and told her that I would like to talk to Joe to get his side of the story.
I remember the night. Minutes after the great TV show, Hill Street Blues signed off for the night, I got a phone call at 11 p.m.
Who was the hell calling me at that late hour? (We only had landlines. There were no cell phones in those days).
It was Joe Crozier!
Calling from the hospital, Crozier explained what happened.
With my notebook in another room, I managed to scribble the quotes on some loose sheets of paper. No, tape recorders were not used by reporters in those days.
I called the sports desk and told them about my scoop. I scribbled down a story (no, writers did not have their own laptop computers in those days; we had to use the few ones the paper had). I dictated my story to a copy editor, and we had a scoop – in time for the first edition (we had much better deadlines in those days).
Crozier returned to coaching a few days later and coached the Amerks so close to another championship.
Joe Crozier was an old-school type of guy, on the ice and off of it. When we had time after practices back in the day, we would talk off the record, about hockey in specific and life in general.
Those were some of my favorite times with him.
As good a memory as I have, I don’t remember many of details games, but I never will forget the man, Joe Crozier.
A real great guy.
RIP, Joe Crozier.