Ice as unyielding as concrete. Razor-sharp blades whizzing past with abandon. Slap-shot pucks flying through the air. Boards dented and dinged from bodies slammed hard into them during every game. Ice hockey and hemophilia are not a good match.
But for David Quinn, an ice hockey rink is where he feels most at ease. On one hand, this is no surprise. Quinn, 52, is the new head coach of the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most storied franchises. On the other hand, it’s a bit startling, because the rookie NHL head coach and former hockey player has hemophilia B.
On a steamy August afternoon a few weeks before the Rangers began preseason training for the 2018-19 season, Quinn was still moving into his office at the team’s practice facility in Tarrytown, New York, just north of New York City. Tables were stacked with plaques and awards, accolades from a nearly 25-year coaching career.
Before coaching, Quinn was a lauded player, a tough and skilled defenseman. He won hockey scholarships to a prestigious prep school and to Boston University, was a first-round NHL draft pick and had a realistic shot at the 1988 Olympics. Needless to say, this is not the expected athletic resume of someone with mild hemophilia B. But that’s because Quinn wasn’t diagnosed until he was 20, when his college team doctor noticed his internal injuries were blood-related and suggested Quinn be tested for hemophilia.
During an interview at the Rangers practice center, Quinn is persistently modest. He often starts sentences with the phrase, “I’m lucky that…” In some ways he is, but he’s also made a long, hard climb. And few challenges tested him more than the hemophilia diagnosis that ended his promising on-ice career. It was a complete shock, although in hindsight there had been signs.
Quinn was born July 30, 1966, and raised in Cranston, Rhode Island, a town he characterized in an open letter introducing himself to Rangers fans as being “as blue collar as they come.” His late father, Bill, was a narcotics detective. His mother, Janice, was a school bus driver. Quinn, the oldest of three kids, grew up a jock. Unaware of his hemophilia, he played just about every sport, no matter how rough and-tumble. “Right near our house there were three baseball fields, four basketball courts, a pool and a pond,” he recalls of his childhood. He started hockey at 4. He bruised a lot, but no one questioned it. “That’s just sports played hard,” everyone figured.
Quinn excelled at ice hockey. His sophomore year of high school, he transferred to the Kent School, a prestigious boarding school in Kent, Connecticut. The school’s hockey coach had seen him playing on an opposing team and offered him a full scholarship—a major win for someone whose family could never have afforded it. “I had never heard of any of these prep schools, but I was excited,” he recalls. “I wanted to go. I looked at the opportunity academically and as a way to get into that world.”
Not that it was easy at first. “I was probably the poorest kid on campus,” Quinn says. “I vividly remember lying there in bed thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ But I said, ‘In one month, everything’s going to be OK.’ I’ve always been optimistic.” Easing the adjustment was the known quantity of sports. Quinn played hockey and football. At 6 feet tall and 215 pounds, he was a dominating physical presence. He was also frequently in pain.
The shadow of his hemophilia, still unsuspected, began to grow as Quinn ramped up his athletic activity and the intensity of every game—and his injuries—became more severe. “I started getting hurt more often,” he recalls. “I missed some hockey and some football because of it. My ankle would swell up at the end of the game.” He played running back in football, and the day after games he would have bruises up his arm. “I couldn’t hold a pen. I just thought, ‘Well, I’m playing sports at a higher level, so of course I’m getting hurt.’”
Just how high a level Quinn was at athletically was evident when he was picked 13th in the first round of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. He had just graduated from Kent and was not yet 18 years old. Opting to forgo signing a professional contract right away, Quinn accepted a hockey scholarship at Boston University, having been recruited by celebrated BU assistant coach Ben Smith. In Boston, Quinn’s life would be forever altered.
At BU, Quinn struggled to stay healthy. He missed half of his first season when he needed surgery to stop internal bleeding in his right shin, a long, deep scar a reminder of that injury, which kept him bedridden for weeks. An award-winning second season was still marked by painful aches and bruising.
After his sophomore season, in March 1986, the BU team doctor suggested Quinn be screened for hemophilia. The tests came back showing he had factor IX deficiency. Quinn had no idea what had just hit him. “I knew zero about hemophilia,” he says. “I thought I could take a pill and I could be cured. Once they told me what it was, it was scary. I’d already played two years of college hockey!”
His family was equally surprised. Of the three Quinn siblings, only David is affected. The Quinns later discovered Janice’s father had hemophilia, and she was a carrier.
Shaken, Quinn wasn’t ready to give up. His sights set on making the USA hockey team for the Calgary Winter Olympics in February 1988, he signed a waiver releasing BU from any liability. “My theory was I’d already survived 15 years of playing high-level sports,” he says. “As far as treatment, there really wasn’t much you could do,” he says of that time. Back on the ice, he started the Terriers season but promptly got a thigh bleed that landed him in the hospital and forced him to miss half the season—again. Despite all this, he won an invite to the US Olympic hockey trials in 1987.
Three weeks before the trials, Quinn sprained his ankle. The injury spiraled into a massive leg bleed. In what was now a painfully familiar scenario, he faced surgery and an extended hospital stay. Finally, Quinn acknowledged what was all too clear: His body couldn’t cope with the demands of hockey. His playing career had to stop. “The realization led to some dark days,” he says. “I was definitely a pissed and rattled and depressed human being. I tried to put up a good front, but it wasn’t easy. The only thing that helps you through it is time, and finding another passion.”
For Quinn, that other passion was coaching. Returning to BU, he assisted the staff of the junior varsity men’s team. “The impact my coaches had on me was powerful,” he says. “I thought it would be cool to have that same impact on other people. To go from not being a player, it softened the blow a little bit.”
Quinn also leaned on one of his old coaches, Ben Smith, for advice. Smith was key to Quinn’s recovery and transition from player to coach. “He wanted me to quit playing hockey, and he helped me through my difficult times,” Quinn says of Smith. Today, Quinn says he and Smith still speak five days a week.
After graduation, Quinn worked in a Boston law firm, then with Smith’s help he jumped into coaching full time. He put in long hours building a team at the University of Nebraska Omaha, worked as a developmental coach for USA Hockey, coached the minor league Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland and worked as an assistant for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
In 2013, Quinn made a full circle of sorts when his alma mater, BU, hired him as head coach of the men’s hockey team. Faced with big expectations, Quinn delivered, leading the Terriers to the NCAA national championship game in 2015 (a tough loss to Providence) and two conference titles. After five years in charge at BU, Quinn’s achievements led to the offer from the Rangers.
Over the years, as Quinn grew as a coach, his management of his hemophilia evolved as well. His factor levels are sufficient that the only regular infusions he needs are before and after surgery or dental work, he says. “I don’t live with it daily,” he says of his hemophilia. “I live a very normal life.” Outside of work, Quinn’s set to make another big change when he marries Kerry O’Brien, a woman he dated while they were undergraduates at BU.
Today he gets in his exercise at the gym and plays golf. He still has to be careful, though. A normal day working means lacing up his skates during practice and getting up close with his players. His hemophilia isn’t something he’s disclosed to them. “This is not about me,” he explains. “It’s about them.”
Not that Quinn’s hiding anything. He’s happy to share his experiences with people in the bleeding disorders community. “I think my story can be very helpful and give people hope,” he says. “The hemophilia world can be a world of ‘no’ and extra cautiousness. Every person with hemophilia has their own limitations, but with the proper medical guidance, we can figure out what we can do.”
Everything Quinn’s gone through has prepared him for his next steps. He knows that consistent hard work, mental toughness and focus—the kind it took him, at 20 years old, to re-envision his life after his hemophilia diagnosis—gets teams to the Stanley Cup. “It’s a psychological game,” he says. “It’s all mental!”
Reprinted with permission from HemAware magazine, © National Hemophilia Foundation, 2019.
– March 2019