By Budd Bailey
Hollywood loves to use the stereotyped slightly odd but still lovable uncle as a stock character of the supporting casts of movies. Think of “Uncle Billy” in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and you get the idea.
Joe Crozier more or less filled that role for me in the 35 or so years that I knew him. He liked the nickname “Joe the Crow,” but “Uncle Joe” might have worked as well. Crozier died this week at the age of 93.
The full details of Joe’s life are available elsewhere, but they don’t quite capture what a memorable character he was. This was a hockey lifer – he played the game professionally for 12 seasons, and then moved into coaching.
Crozier won three Calder Cups as a coach in Rochester in the Sixties, which made him something of a legend there especially when his two seasons as a player are part of his resume. Buffalo received an introduction to him in 1972, when Sabres general manager Punch Imlach was hospitalized and had to give up his coaching duties. His good friend Joe, coaching down on the farm in Cincinnati, was called up to replace him.
“I liked the American League,” he remembered. “I was sort of a big fish in a little pond. I didn’t want the National League, but when Punch had a heart attack – Punch was my buddy for many, many years, I had to go help him.”
The Sabres soon found out that a new sheriff was in town, and he had some different ways. “Personality-wise, I think Joe was a little more psychologically manipulative than Punch was,” Gerry Meehan said. “Punch was the kind of guy who, if you were going good, he’d never get in your way. Joe would always be trying different things to motivate you, whether it was not playing you much or telling you he loved you or telling you he hated you.”
For example, one time Joe got sick of the way the Sabres players tended to watch Gil Perreault do all the work. So one day Crozier sent Perreault out on the ice to skate by himself for several minutes, and had the in-house TV cameras show the scene. The message was essentially, “If you want to watch him, here’s your chance.” Joe loved Gilbert, and not just because Perreault would bring him a cup of coffee on the ice just before the start of practice – although that didn’t hurt.
That team eventually came together in almost record time, thanks in part of Joe’s placement of Rene Robert on a line with Perreault and Rick Martin. “We knew we had two offensive players in Perreault and Martin so we needed a defensive type to stay high,” Crozier explained. “The French Connection line” was born, one of the last of the great lines in hockey history. The Sabres made the playoffs in 1973, and Crozier was named the NHL’s coach of the year.
The magic wore off in 1973-74, although Crozier tried to keep everyone loose. One time Jim Schoenfeld was out with a long-term injury. Apparently he was getting bored so he begged Crozier to let him travel with the team on a road trip. “I said to him, ‘What can you do for the team on a road trip?’” Joe told me. “He said, ‘Well, I can bring my guitar along.’ I laughed and said, ‘OK, get your guitar. You can go with us.’”
Schoenfeld wasn’t the only problem in a season that is remembered for the tragic death of Tim Horton after a game in Toronto. By the end of the season, there were rumors that Crozier was weighing another offer. Vancouver of the World Hockey Association offered him a five-year deal, and Imlach wouldn’t match it. So Joe the Crow flew west to a new nest.
“I should have stayed where I was,” he said much later. “It just wasn’t the right move. The right move was to stay put.”
Crozier spent three years in the WHA, and returned to work with Imlach with Toronto in 1981. But soon the Sabres’ organization called him back, and he was connected to Buffalo for the rest of his hockey life, He was back with Rochester in 1983-84. And here’s where the stories about Joe’s personality start to come out.
One of the marketing people who worked there was Bob Russell, who eventually moved up to the Sabres. This anecdote from Bob from Facebook tells a little bit about Joe. “My first day working for the Amerks, the ‘new’ coach, Joe Crozier, put his arm around me and said ‘So, Bobby, do you like to use blue language?’ I looked at him confused. “Do you like to swear, damnit?! Because if you want to make it in this business, you better learn.’”
Joe had something of a Coach’s Corner Show on local Rochester television then. He spent one episode going over the fundamentals of fighting in hockey. (“Be sure to get the first punch in,” he said.”) You could almost picture the mothers of young hockey players screaming in dismay. Last I knew, broadcaster Pete Weber still has the video of that show. What I didn’t know until now is that Crozier was diagnosed with depression during that time. Joe always had taken the losses hard. His days as a head coach were about over.
The next season Joe was back behind the bench in Buffalo, serving as an assistant coach under Scotty Bowman. Crozier told me about the time that he looked over and saw Bowman having a meltdown over some issue that seemed important at the time. Joe leaned over and whispered to Craig Ramsay, “Can you believe I lost a playoff series to this guy (Montreal, 1973)?”
Crozier then became an assistant to Bowman, and had a memorable moment before a game. Joe was sitting in the press box when he noticed a sign that was critical of Bowman had been posted on an Aud wall. He almost ran out of the press box and down the stairs to personally rip the sign off. You could never question Joe’s loyalty.
A different role
His job status changed once Scotty departed. He started working with the minor leaguers, but it was always a treat to sit and talk hockey around the Sabres’ office when he had the time to do so … which he always did. When the Sabres started changing head coaches with alarming frequency in that era, I heard that Joe had volunteered to make a comeback and coach the team. But he was told a return to the early 1970s wouldn’t happen – perhaps because the team knew of his mental health issues would always be lurking.
But Joe figured out a way to hang around – which was good news for us. I remember in 1991 that one of the conversation points of training camp was a free agent named Bob Fleming. He was a minor leaguer who ran up some penalty minutes while scoring a few goals. But he hadn’t played in a couple of years, and we all wondered what he was doing in camp. I asked Joe how he looked. “He can fight,” Crozier said a little mournfully. “Can’t play … but he can fight.”
At one point the talk in the office was Joe talked management into spreading a one-year contract out over two years, so he could stay in the organization. Then he picked up a valuable friend with the arrival of team executive Larry Quinn. After that, Crozier served a variety of roles – including ticket salesman – as something of a team ambassador. It was easy to tell Quinn liked to have him around.
Larry once told me a story about how the Sabres were hoping to bring the Frozen Four to Buffalo in the late 1990s. Joe came along as a good-luck charm. He had a prepared statement to make to the guys in suits from the NCAA. However, that speech didn’t last long. He threw away the text and spoke from the heart. “Guys, you’ve gotta give us this,” he said. “Buffalo’s hurting. We need something like this.” Quinn loved it.
Eventually, Crozier’s health deteriorated, and he had to learn to live without hockey to some extent. Still, I’d bump into him around town, and he’d always greet me with over-the-top enthusiasm. He usually grabbed a stranger to tell him or her how smart I was or something. Yes, Joe could be a little full of malarkey, but it was easy to tell that down deep he cared. I’d also bump into son Rich, a hockey coach at St. Joe’s, and always asked to be remembered to Joe. The photo above is from the last time I saw Joe, in 2017. You could tell he’d gone through some tough times, but he still lit up when he saw me.
It’s a little tough to believe that it was about 50 years ago when, as a high school kid in Clarence, I watched Joe behind the bench at Sabre games. I’m so glad I got to see what that guy was really like. I’ll smile whenever I think of “Joe the Crow”/“Uncle Joe” in the years to come.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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