There is a special place in heaven for someone who could chirp the refs the entire night from the end of the Kingston bench and still be welcomed into the official’s room for post-game beers. That was Len Coyle. You couldn’t stay mad at him for long. And you knew his good-natured ribbing came from the heart.
The news of his passing stung like a slapshot from former Kingston defenseman Mark Suzor. It hurt, a lot. A note to 2020, we sure could use a little good news. Recent losses of Bubs Van Hooser, Bud Anson, and before that we lost Guy White. Great Kingston sportsman, gone to the great beyond.
Lenny touched everyone around him. He didn’t make acquaintances, he made friends. I hope this morning someone is stitching a banner with his name on it to hang in the Leon’s Centre. If one person was synonymous with junior hockey in Kingston, it was Lenny. A fixture at every game since day one – when the first puck dropped for the Kingston Canadians at the Memorial Centre in 1973.
When a former player came back to Kingston the first guy they’d seek out would be Lenny. That tells you all you need to know. Teenagers gravitated to him when they arrived here far from home to play in the OHL fishbowl. If they had an issue on or off the ice they wouldn’t go to the coach, they’d go to Lenny. A father figure, he’d give them straightforward, honest advice and it never left the room. That’s what creates lifelong bonds.
Lenny played the game relying more on hockey smarts than raw talent. He was part of the Kingston Merchant teams in the late ’60s that won back to back Ontario Senior/Intermediate championships. An electrician by trade, he was a ‘plumber’ on those teams; team manager, an extra defenseman when needed, the kind of teammate who would load the bags, sweep the dressing room, and drive the bus if you asked him. It’s why everyone loved the guy. No job too big or too small. He’d just do the work, never complain, and never take any credit. That was Lenny.
Former junior players like Tony McKegney would tell Len everything was better in the NHL, except the skate sharpening! They never found anyone who did it as well. It’s as close as Len ever came to bragging; clearly he was a master at his craft.
Years ago when Len stepped away after decades as the Frontenacs assistant trainer, he didn’t go far. At every game he stood at the corner of the rink closest to the entrance to the Fronts dressing room. He still knew every current Fronts player, every coach, every official, and every scout. A trip to Kingston for those around the OHL always meant a visit with Len.
The Coyle’s did double duty on game night. His wonderful wife, Freda, forged great friendships running the media room for the scouts and media. Veteran scouts, many were former NHL players, wouldn’t leave the room without a hug, and Freda stuffing a couple of homemade cookies in their pocket.
As a kid, Lenny grew up as a rink rat at the old Jock Harty Arena, back in the days when Don Cherry skated for Max Jackson’s Junior ‘B’ Kingston Victoria’s. On Saturday’s in the fall when Queen’s football got going, he’d be up the street at the old Richardson Stadium chalking the lines for a couple of bucks. Eventually, he would find his way to the timekeeper’s bench. And when Len committed to something he was there for the long game. That timekeeping stint lasted fifty years, much of it spent beside the recently passed Bubs Van Hooser and the late Phil Marshall. It wasn’t football at Queen’s unless Len Coyle was seated at the timer’s bench.
One of Len’s favourite days of the year was in February when the Original Hockey Hall of Fame played its annual Historic Hockey Series. He was a fixture there, pretty much since it began in 1969. Len loved the tradition and the importance of recognizing the first games played in Kingston. He was famous for never wearing gloves when he officiated the games, even on days it felt like minus 20 on the Kingston harbour. We all marveled at how he did it, well into his 70’s he was way tougher than the rest of us. It was also ironic, the guy who made a career out of chirping officials would once a year don a white smock and ring a cowbell to officiate our games.
Afterward, I would stay late into the evening with Len, having a beer or six and the stories flowed as freely as the beer. He was an encyclopedia when it came to his knowledge of Kingston teams and athletes. And he gave you the straight goods. The kind of inside knowledge you wouldn’t find in old newspaper clippings. Let’s just say he had a good read on people. Len would also share stories from his youth, how as a teenager he left school to sail the Great Lakes working on the freighters. He was still a kid among men, learning life lessons they don’t teach you in school. He also learned the value of hard work that he carried with him for life.
A few years ago, we decided to honour Len for his years of dedication to Historic Hockey and we renamed the tournament MVP trophy after him. It came as a surprise, and he was genuinely choked up at the honour. It meant a lot to us and him. Much like in 2009, when he was inducted into the Kingston Sports Hall of Fame, he humbly accepted it as someone who just loved what he did and wondered what all the fuss was about. Those who give the most, expect the least. It’s why you cheer the hardest for people like Len Coyle. Because they did it for all the right reasons.
Freda was his rock, and to her and the Coyle & Horton families, we offer our deepest condolences. Kingston is a little poorer today, without Len Coyle here to share a story.
Mark Potter is a long time Kingston broadcaster, Past President of the Original Hockey Hall of Fame and a member of the Kingston Sports Hall of Fame.