No matter were he was in the world, E.J. McGuire always returned a phone call.
He’d call from airports, conferences, his car, his office and most often from some hockey rink with bad reception.
He would always apologize for the bad reception because above all – as a teacher, coach, scout, friend, father and husband – McGuire was a good and kind man.
On Thursday, the 58-year-old lost his fight with a rare and incurable form of cancer, leiomyosarcoma, which attacks involuntary muscle cells.
“He was one of the finest human beings on this earth,” said longtime friend Jim Rooney, who hired McGuire to coach the OHL’s Guelph Storm in 1995. “We were so blessed to have known him… he was the epitome of what goodness is about, of what knowledge is about.”
Rooney met McGuire when he was an assistant coach with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-to-late 1980s. He then went on to coach the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators as an assistant before Rooney, then team owner, offered him the head coaching job with the Storm. In August of ’95, long before the junior season had even started, McGuire showed up at the rink one day with folders full of scouting reports and charts from the previous year.
“He opened a file and it had eight month’s work of preparation and every month was graphed out in coloured pen,” said Rooney. “It had everything we were doing statistically, strategically, physical growth, emotional growth, it was phenomenal.”
McGuire, a native of Buffalo, held a Masters degree in Physical Education and worked on his doctorate in Kinesiology while he was coaching hockey at the University of Waterloo. He was extremely smart, but never came across as condescending. Born Edward John McGuire, he got the moniker E.J. early on.
“He said, ‘When I went to school, my name was Edward John, but I couldn’t spell it, so I told the teacher to call me E.J.,’ ” said Rooney with a big laugh. “Is that so E.J. or what? I just loved him.”
His players loved him, too, and as a friend of the late coaching legend Roger Neilson, he was also big on breaking down video with his students in the dressing room.
“Back then it was a little bit harder for video,” said former Storm defenceman Chris Hajt. “He’d have two VCRs and he’d be showing us clips everyday of different NHL stuff. His passion for the game was second to none. He made you so excited to come to the rink with is energy.
“He always made everyone feel very important.”
Hajt said, like most coaches, there was also a fire to McGuire when it came to game time.
“He was a real nice guy, but he was real intense, too,” said Hajt who is now an assistant coach with the Storm. “He had that side where you didn’t want to tick him off and you wanted to do your best for him.”
In 2005, McGuire became director of the NHL’s Central Scouting Service (CSS). It was the perfect job for someone so incredibly detailed and organized. McGuire was always accessible; if you had a question about an obscure draft-eligible player based out of a European league, he’d find the information you.
Ask about any player’s ranking in any given year, and he’d explain his rationale for how and why the CSS came to its decision. At the NHL draft combine last May, he held court over reporters, explaining all the nuances of the fitness and psychological testing. He said he regularly attended the NFL draft combine to pick up tips that might help his league parse talent a little better since he liked to call scouting, “an imprecise science.”
“We’re talking about still-developing kids,” said McGuire during an interview last June. “A lot of times a kid who develops sooner and is ahead of the pace and physiologically mature gets better headlines than somebody who comes down the back stretch.”
In October he was already discussing the top prospects for the 2011 NHL draft in Minneapolis, where there are a number of potential No. 1 picks – Red Deer’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Saint John’s Jonathan Huberdeau or even Sweden’s Adam Larsson.
“I’m sure it will be a neat debate,” said McGuire of who will go first overall in June. “By that time there probably won’t be a stick-out No. 1 North American, so in a political sense the vote might be divided by a couple of real good North Americans, and who knows? Maybe Adam Larsson will sneak in as the No. 1 overall.”
And while hockey might have been his passion, his first love was his family: wife, Terry, and daughters Jacqueline and Erin. According to Rooney, when McGuire was in Guelph, before marrying Terry, the coach didn’t want anyone to know about their serious romance.
“But everybody knew he was in love, so we all teased him,” said Rooney. “He was so proud of those girls.”
Hajt said McGuire never missed an opportunity to help those in need and was a regular at the Roger Neilson Coaches’ Clinic where he shared his vast knowledge about the game with anyone who asked.
“He was an honourable man who was loyal to his friends and family,” said Hajt. “He was loyal to the game and just wanted to share it with everybody.”