chicagoblackhawks.com's "Blood, Sweat and Cheers" series returns with all-time great Stan Mikita reflecting on the career of his former coach, Billy Reay.
Billy Reay was a terrific coach, and l’m sure I’m not alone when I say I consider myself fortunate to have played under him for so many years with the Blackhawks. Beyond that, though, he was a good man. I guess it’s unusual to call your coach or your boss a friend, but that’s how I felt about Billy. I know my wife, Jill, felt the same way about his wife, Clare. They were close, and back in those days a hockey team was like a family. Guys tended to stay together for a long time, and we weren’t together just for games or practices. We did a lot of things together off the ice.
Billy never socialized with us, but he helped encourage our attitude of togetherness. Today, they call it “chemistry.” Billy was good at stressing the team concept and having us play for one another. We did, for the most part, and we also wanted to play hard for him. Not only because we didn’t like going into his office where he looked at us with that glare of his—we called him "X-Reay"—but we didn’t want to let him down, either. Billy was a player. He won two Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, in 1946 and 1953, so he understood what it was to play through injuries and slumps and all that.
He respected us as we respected him, and he was a man’s man. I never heard anybody say a bad word about him—except maybe the referees—and I know players appreciated the fact that he never threw us under the bus in public. Billy wasn’t afraid of letting guys have it for poor play in a team meeting or one on one, but you knew you weren’t going to pick up the morning newspaper and read about him criticizing his players. That was private, and long before you started hearing the term "a players’ coach," Billy was one. He got his point across in his own way, and one way he always did it was with honesty. He was brutally honest, and we appreciated that. I imagine that reporters wished he’d have been a little more quotable, but that just wasn’t Billy’s style.
When I first came up to the Blackhawks, my coach was Rudy Pilous, whom I knew well because he had coached me in junior hockey at St. Catharines. We won a Stanley Cup in 1961 under Rudy, and being a kid, I thought he would be there forever. Rudy was fired in 1963, when Jill and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii. There was a rumor going around that I was a ringleader in getting Rudy dismissed. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I made sure Rudy knew that as soon as I talked to him. I didn’t know much about Billy, other than he’d coached the Toronto Maple Leafs for a couple years. But as soon as he took over in Chicago, he came up to me and put me at ease by saying, “I know you had nothing to do with what happened with Rudy Pilous.”
Billy had a good sense of humor and a tremendous knack for knowing when to get our attention, if you know what I mean. We were on a long unbeaten streak once, and after a game in Philadelphia, all us players gathered in a hotel bar. It was getting a little late, and here comes Billy in a suit and tie, dressed immaculately as always, except for that felt hat he wore behind the bench. He just walks around the place, looks at us and walks out. Never said a word. He didn’t have to. If we were losing, though, he tried to pick us up. We had a meeting in Oakland, I remember, during a bad stretch. Billy pulls a piece of paper out of his jacket, calls me up and has me read a letter. It’s from a fan, an elderly lady in a nursing home, who lives to listen to our games on the radio. But her new roommate broke the radio, and this fan of ours is furious. She asks us to send her a new radio so she could throw it at her roommate! Well, we’re all on the floor laughing, it broke the tension, and we started a winning streak.
Billy did it all by himself. No assistants, no traveling secretary, no PR guy on the road. Billy handed out the boarding passes and the meal money and ran practices by himself. And he still made time for his hobby, which was following the horses.
Billy also would listen. We got Doug Mohns in a trade with Boston. He was a defenseman with a great shot. Ab McDonald was gone, so Billy and I talked about putting Mohns with Kenny Wharram and me on a second version of the “Scooter Line.” Mohns went up to forward and he was great.
We called Billy the “Cagey Mentor” and occasionally referred to him as “Tulip,” which was his middle name. He hated that. But we could have fun with him. He was firm but fair, and not one for speeches or exerting his authority.
I just wish we could have won a Cup for him. We had some really good teams, but it wasn’t meant to be. The worst was in 1971, when we led Montreal 2-0 in the Final and 2-0 in the seventh game. Bobby Hull hit the post. It could have been 3-0. The Canadiens turned around, Jacques Lemaire scored, and they beat us 3-2. That hurt. Still hurts.
In 1976, our roster was depleted. Bobby was long gone to Winnipeg, and Billy got fired just before Christmas. Bill White was named head coach; Bobby Orr and I were his assistants. I felt terrible. I didn’t like what happened to Billy or how it happened: They put a note under his door at the Stadium, a pink slip, and another under the door at his apartment. Billy, naturally, took it like a man. “Stan,” he said, “it’s all part of the hockey business.” Fortunately, ownership looked after Billy. He was given seats behind our bench for games; he came often and gradually started showing up for events with our Alumni organization, like our golf tournament.
Billy took some heat for not winning a Cup in Chicago with a lot of good players and good teams. But he won more games than any coach in Blackhawks history, and I wish before he passed away in 2004 that he’d have gotten into the Hall of Fame. He belongs there. No question in my mind. It wasn’t his fault that we never seemed to get the right bounce in the playoffs. He let players play and demanded only that you give your best. Ask the guys who played for him. Billy Reay was a terrific coach and a good man. A real good man.
Billy Reay was class, all class.