Dallas Stars coach-general manager Bob Gainey helped escort elite pro hockey to one of its southern-most latitudes two years ago. That meant that a year after his enshrinement in the NHL Hall of Fame, the former Montreal left wing found himself explaining hockey fundamentals to a city that craved enlightenment.
It was like asking a calculus professor suddenly to teach a kindergarten class. It was like going from integrating and differentiating to finger-painting.
The Minnesota North Stars' move to Dallas landed Gainey in a new spotlight; everyone wanted to know all about him. And he obliged by being approachable, patient and considerate. Have a hockey question? Step right up, Bob Gainey at your service.
But to know he would be accessible and instructive was not to know him; his personal life remained a tightly bound volume he never allowed to become a public spectacle. He kept his office and his home separate, never letting one arena excuse the other.
Gainey, 41, became a widower on Wednesday when his wife, Cathy, lost her five-year fight with cancer. The four Gainey children and their father lost what Cathy Gainey's friend Leanne Lalor called the most "hearty laugh" and "devilish smile" that ever belonged to the NHL -- "No Home Life" -- sorority.
Gainey was a rookie NHL head coach in Minnesota the year of Cathy's diagnosis.
"They didn't want sympathy," said Doug Armstrong, the Stars' assistant to the general manager. "Bob and Cathy worried more about other people. They never came across as feeling that their problems were any greater than any of our problems. That's a hell of a quality."
Unflagging dignity is a hell of a quality. It is more than the practiced art of exhibiting a brave facade. It is more than taking a reserved nature and letting it contain feelings. Unflagging dignity was what Gainey gave Dallas.
The Stars knew their coach went home to what must have been unbearable sorrows. It reached the point where Cathy, 39, could not drive and friends pitched in. Stars defenseman Mike Lalor and his wife, Leanne, met the Gainey family when Mike and Bob played for the Canadiens. The Lalor family knew the Stars coach as a man who never wanted to burden others.
"He kept things private," Leanne Lalor said Friday. "But Cathy was very proud of him. She was a happy, outspoken person. She came from a family of 18 children and organized a lot of team functions."
Stars center Dave Gagner said his coach probably learned to organize his emotions as a player with Montreal. Gainey, who was on five Stanley Cup championship teams, served as the Canadiens' captain eight times.
"He played in a very intense media center, where it could be brutal," Gagner said. "He learned to keep his private life private. It must have been very difficult for him, but he has never been the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve."
Gainey's five Stanley Cup rings never got in the figurative way of his capacity to indulge those who wanted basic hockey answers.
He had to have wanted answers, too.
Armstrong said Gainey confided in a close network of friends.
"I think his goal was to stay strong for his family," Armstrong said. "As a player, he was a leader by example. And many who played with him said he was the best captain they ever had."
That means a lot in hockey, in which the best captain is the best team player.
After the Stars traded Neal Broten to New Jersey in February, some of the Dallas players criticized Gainey. They especially took shots at his approach to the power play. Gainey's response included a rare self-revelation: "With every group, somebody has to be in charge," he said. "And that's what I do. I make the decisions."
He then decided to allow some of his critics to make changes in the team's power-play regimen. He kept his dignity and fed the spirit of democracy.
Gainey was not pleased with the season. It began with an owners' lockout and ended for the Stars in Detroit, where Dallas lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Gainey did not linger long at the post-game news conference that night at Joe Louis Arena. But the aura of his unflagging dignity did.
He has spent five years making decisions about which none of us has any right to know. What Dallas has seen in Gainey was dignity.
DETROIT RED WINGS
vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
(New Jersey leads series, 3-0)
Game 1: Devils, 2-1
Game 2: Devils, 4-2
Game 3: Devils, 5-2
Last night: at New Jersey
Monday: at Detroit, 8*, ESPN
Wednesday: at N. J., 7:30*, ESPN
Friday: at Detroit, 8*, Ch. 45