*Note: this was an article that I wrote in August, 2011. Wanted to share it again.
A few years back while having morning coffee with my future wife, while sitting at the nearby Tim Horton’s restaurant in the suburbs of Buffalo, I recognized a familiar face making his way through the doorway. I had never met the man before, but any true long-time Sabres fan would have recognized him. Our eyes met and he smiled and nodded to me. I kind of beamed from his acknowledgement, and said “Hi Joe! How are you?”. He proceeded to move into line to grab his morning coffee and a box of Timbits. It was former Sabres coach, Joe Crozier; “The Crow”.
I probably would have thought nothing more about it, other than perhaps to say to people, “Hey, I saw Joe Crozier this morning at Tim Horton’s“, but Joe actually proceeded to come over and sit with us once he had gotten his order. He really did not have to. He didn’t know me or my girlfriend. He is an older gentleman who is not in the best of health, and I am sure that he is also very busy in his personal life. I can certainly see how this man, a great hockey coach in his own right and highly respected in various hockey circles, had heavily endeared himself both to the players that he coached and to those of the community.
Mr. Crozier stayed with us a good 15-minutes, drinking coffee, updating us on his health and what he was doing these days, signed an autograph for the girl I would eventually marry, shook my hand and said goodbye as he was leaving to make his way up to Tim Horton’s “Camp Days” over the border in Welland, Ontario. He took time out of his day to stop and spend a portion of his morning with us. I won’t ever forget how he extended that courtesy to strangers/hockey fans.
Joe Crozier was the first head-coach to lead the Buffalo Sabres into the playoffs when he did so during the 1972-73 season; only their third season of existence. This was also the first full season that the newly united “French Connection” line of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert was assembled. There were a few rookies on that team as well and also a group of players in their early-mid 20s that were trying to make names for themselves; hoping to land permanent jobs in the NHL. Don Luce, Craig Ramsay, Jim Schoenfeld, Larry Mickey, Mike Robitaille, Larry Carriere, Paul Terbenche, Dave Dryden, team captain Gerry Meehan, Steve Atkinson and others all saw their game improve from the guidance and knowledge that Crozier imparted to them. And though for the most part that Sabres team was very young, Crozier and general manager Punch Imlach blended in a nice mix of veterans as well, with the likes of 35-year old multiple time Stanley Cup champion Larry Hillman, the acrobatic netminder and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Roger Crozier, and the late, great Tim Horton, who also was a perennial Stanley Champion and an eventual Hockey Hall of Famer.
Regardless of the experience levels or talent levels of those Sabre players in ’73, one thing that they all say in interviews and in storytelling is that Crozier taught them to be closely knit and to have fun. They were a team that loved playing together and believed in where Crozier was leading them. I am certain that all of those players have been able to look back upon how positively Joe Crozier effected their playing careers and their lives.
When the Buffalo Sabres welcomed back their alumni of 40-years on April 8, 2011, it was an incredibly heartwarming and emotional experience to see two-thirds of “The French Connection”, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, guiding their former coach onto the ice surface for the ceremony, while Crozier walked with Rick Martin’s jersey in hand (Martin had sadly passed away less than a month prior). The symbolism could not be missed. In their youth, their coach had guided them forth towards camaraderie and team success. Now in his old age, their steadying hands guided him back to those great times that they had shared so many years prior.
When I think of how Joe Crozier took some time out of his day to spend it with me for just cup of coffee and small talk, it is no wonder that his former players hold him in such high-regard; not only as a coach but as a person as well. You get a sense that Crozier can see the importance of everyone whom he meets and the role that they play either on the ice or in life. When a coach is able to recognize the significance of each individual and make them feel that their particular job matters and is vital, that coach is then able to orchestrate a true team that can succeed by believing in each other and counting on each other. I suppose that it is the same way in everyday life as well. Maybe some people, like Joe Crozier, realize that more than others and that has what has made them successful and respectable in life.