This is a tough column to write because it's about the loss of a dear friend whom I will miss forever. Billy Reay was an incredibly talented athlete, a great coach, a solid citizen, a devoted husband, and a wonderful father and grandfather--one of the most magnificent individuals I have ever met. His quiet decency has had an enduring effect on my life and the lives of countless others who were fortunate enough to come into contact with this man.
Since his death Sept. 23 from liver cancer at age 86, obituaries and remembrances have been published across the U.S. and in Canada, where hockey reigns supreme. Reay was a very successful coach of the Chicago Blackhawks professional hockey team in the 1960s and 1970s. You might wonder what those who work in healthcare could learn from a hockey coach, but you'll know the answer after reading this story.
My first meeting with Billy and his wife, Clare, took place back in the early '70s. I had coached their son Billy Reay Jr. in youth hockey leagues for a number of years but had never met his famous father. My teams were lucky enough to win some state titles and played in a couple of national tournaments. We played many games against top-flight Canadian teams.
Billy Reay Sr. at the time was known all over the National Hockey League as one of the sport's best coaches. Some of his players would later be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Bobby and Dennis Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. Reay recorded a franchise record of 516 victories in his 14 seasons with the Blackhawks and took the team to the Stanley Cup finals three times.
So when I was invited to meet Billy and Clare at a Blackhawks game, I was both nervous and excited. That was the beginning of my relationship with the Reays, and our friendship grew quite close and endured. When I received the call from Billy Reay Jr. that his dad had died, I was saddened to think that I had missed seeing him when he was in the latter stages of his long fight against cancer.
Back in the late '40s and early '50s, Billy Reay starred with the Montreal Canadiens and centered the line of Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Elmer Lach. In those days the Canadiens dominated the NHL, and anybody who played on that team was considered exceptional. Billy Reay was known as a savvy, tough and reliable performer. In his prime he stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 157 pounds. He might have looked small, but anyone who follows sports knows you can't measure an athlete by physical stature. The real measure of greatness for most athletes is heart, and Billy had plenty of that.
As a coach he simply knew the game. He used the experiences he had as a player, when he was part of two championship teams, to help him relate to his players. He treated them as professionals and adults. He was not a screamer and he certainly wasn't the kind to make anyone feel like a loser.
He treated all of his charges with dignity and respect and employed the tactic of soft-spoken and private discussions with his players to motivate them to excel. Some have even suggested that Reay was way ahead of his time with his use of psychology to motivate his players. One writer described Billy Reay this way: "He was a player's coach before the term came into vogue, and he did it the old-fashioned way, without a roster of assistants, nutritionists and psychologists." When he coached, Billy always wore a red fedora and dressed well, but he was not the kind to take center stage because he felt that belonged to his players. He was humble. At work, he always answered his own phone.
Billy and Clare were married for 62 years and were totally devoted to each other. In addition to Billy Jr. they had a daughter, Adele. Both children have been dedicated to their parents and their own children. Both Billy Jr. and Adele have enjoyed successful careers, more evidence of the legacy of Billy Sr. and Clare.
At Billy's funeral in Madison, Wis., where the Reays have lived for the past two years, Adele and Billy Jr. talked about Billy Sr. and his integrity, his gentleness, his way with others and his respect for everyone. They also talked about his love of family and friends, especially his love for Clare. It was a most moving experience for my wife and me. It made me realize that the true legacy for many of us is how our kids view us as parents and human beings.
Billy Reay was the real deal. A leader with heart, a family man filled with love and a gentleman at all times. Finally, in spite of all his accomplishments in hockey and all his accomplishments as a human being, I do know he was most proud of his son, who received a doctorate in pharmacy and now is pharmacy director for Physicians Plus Insurance Co. in Madison. Billy Reay thought healthcare was an honorable profession because it's about selflessly helping others. And that happened to be what Billy was all about.
I was lucky to know him,