In his final months, knowing death was imminent from an incurable disease, E.J. McGuire drew up a bucket list. The former coach and longtime scout visited old haunts from his past. He reconnected with his former junior teams and dropped by his alma maters, Brockport State College and Canisius High.
The most fitting box he checked before he died in 2011 was running a Bishop Timon/St. Jude practice at Cazenovia Ice Rink in South Buffalo. On that January day, one of Buffalo's strongest links to amateur and pro hockey combined his expertise with his passion for young people and love for his hometown.
It was E.J. McGuire at his best.
"He enjoyed it," said Gene Overdorf, a childhood friend of McGuire's and Timon's coach at the time. "I could see he was having fun out there. He talked to the kids afterward and gave them advice about power plays and penalty kills, but he was enjoying the moment. I was proud, quite frankly, that he was there."
McGuire summoned Overdorf to his car after the practice, opened his trunk and showered him with items that could help the program: practice plans, strategies for running the power play and penalty kill, an old playbook from his days as an assistant coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and practice gear for coaches.
In a selfless act that defined his personality, he never mentioned to his old friend that he was dying from a rare form of bone cancer that started in his knee and spread. Three months later, the NHL lost one of the most intelligent and innovative minds of the past 40 years. He was 58 years old.
McGuire grew up in the Old First Ward and never forgot his roots. He will be inducted posthumously into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in KeyBank Center, around the corner from his childhood home on Vandalia Street, joining his lifelong friend and brother-in-law, longtime Sabres equipment man Rip Simonick.
"If you were the guy mopping the floor in the locker room or emptying a garbage can, he would be the first guy to say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' " said Simonick, whose late wife, Mary Ann ("Maize"), was McGuire's sister. "He never looked down on anybody. He was happy for what he had, and he made the most of it."
McGuire was a brilliant man who earned his Ph.D. in kinesiology/sports psychology from the University of Waterloo in 1990. He chipped away at his degree while serving as an assistant coach under Mike Keenan. The two met while Keenan was coaching the Rochester Americans. McGuire was a student at Brockport when he became a voluntary assistant coach under Keenan.
Keenan was so impressed with McGuire's creativity and attention to detail that he insisted McGuire join him as an assistant coach when he was hired by the Flyers in 1984. They guided the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals twice, in 1985 and 1987, losing both times to the Oilers during their dynasty with Wayne Gretzky.
McGuire was among the great visionaries of his time. Along with Roger Neilson, he understood the advantages that came from film study (now video scouting) and breaking down tendencies. It was no coincidence Flyers forward Brian Propp, for example, had some of his best seasons with McGuire running the power play.
"He was very strategic," Propp said by telephone. "Keenan ran the whole show, but E.J. really helped work the power play. He was so easy going and fun to be with. In the '80s, scouting made a difference. He was doing videos when it was just getting started. It was instrumental for us. He was really ahead of his time."
McGuire followed Keenan to Chicago in 1988 and spent three years with the Blackhawks before he was named head coach of the AHL Maine Mariners. He also was a head coach at OHL Guelph and AHL Hartford before hanging up his whistle and becoming one of the top scouts in North America.
In 2002, McGuire began working in NHL Scouting Services and eventually took over as director, using his keen eye for talent and knack for projecting players going into the draft. He was a notorious pack rat whose collection of notes about players and reports on teams grew until the day he died.
"He kept everything," Simonick said. "I found notes that said stuff like, 'Make sure you run Gretzky when Messier is not on the ice.' The scouting reports were phenomenal. He had a lot of ideas and a lot of different-colored pens. I don't think you can find a person in hockey who didn't respect E.J."
The NHL paid tribute to him three years ago by creating the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence. The honor, presented annually during the draft, is given to the prospect who best exemplifies the commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism. He also was instrumental in creating the NHL Scouting Combine, which is held in Buffalo.
"E.J. inherited the scouting department, and it was tired and outdated and teetering on being relevant," said Chris Edwards, who worked with McGuire in Central Scouting before moving into the development program for on-ice officials. "The day he died, he turned over one of the best departments in the National Hockey League."
Decades before analytics became popular in sports, McGuire studied numbers and applied them any way he could. The practice dated to his childhood, when he kept statistics from neighborhood dice games. He carried the same mentality into the NHL whether he was coaching or scouting or running.
McGuire was in terrific shape and was an avid runner, sometimes jogging 10 miles a day no matter the weather, even when he was on the road. When he was in his 50s, he analyzed winds and asked his traveling partners to drive him to a specific location so he could run with the wind on the way back to their hotel.
"He would keep himself busy on long road trips, figuring out the gas mileage in the car," Edward said. "He would do all these math calculations, figure out different rental cars. He carried this black duffle bag around that weighed about 40 pounds, and it was all these notes and calculations. It was just to keep his head busy."
McGuire's greatest gift was making people feel comfortable with his sharp wit and humble persona. He learned names of people who were often overlooked, making friends in arenas across North America. He frequently, and quietly, slipped money to custodians and told them to grab a beer after their shift.
It came directly from his First Ward upbringing and never changed from the time he was a child until he spent his final months revisiting people who made an impact on his life. He never considered the impact he made on them. Right until the end, it was E.J. McGuire at his best.
"I really can't say enough about him," Edwards said. "He's one of my favorite people in the whole world. I can't think of anybody better and more deserving to go into the Hall of Fame than E.J. McGuire. The only other place he belongs is in the Human Being Hall of Fame."