When they wanted Bill Reay to write about his dad, they didn’t have to ask twice.
“I just sat down and wrote it,” Reay recalled recently. “It came naturally.”
Storytelling must run in the family. Bill’s father, Billy Reay, was a natural. Nobody spun better tales around the big breakfast table at the Coventry Village senior community off High Point Road. It was Billy Reay’s last residence. Mornings, he held court while the guys drank coffee.
Reay — who died in Madison in 2004, at 86 — had a deep well of stories that sprang in part from his many years as a player and coach in the rough-and-tumble National Hockey League. As a player, Reay helped the Montreal Canadians win two Stanley Cups. As a coach, he took the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup finals.
It was Reay’s legendary hockey career that led the publishers of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books to contact his son, Bill, in Madison earlier this year and ask for a contribution to the latest in the series, just published, titled “Hooked on Hockey: 101 Stories About the Players Who Love the Game and the Families that Cheer Them On.”
Bill’s tribute to his father in the new book is titled simply “My Dad the Coach.”
It should be noted that the son also made a name in hockey. Bill Reay, 60, is chief pharmacy officer and senior director of Physicians Plus Insurance Corp. in Madison. But he came to town originally on a college hockey scholarship and played for the Badgers team that won a magical national championship in Boston in 1973.
Billy Reay was coaching the Blackhawks then. He dropped into Madison on occasion to watch his son play for Bob Johnson. It could have been a big deal — a celebrated NHL coach in attendance — but it was not Billy’s style to announce himself.
“Reay shunned center stage,” wrote esteemed Chicago sportswriter Bob Verdi in a later appreciation. “He answered his own phone. The show was out there, on the ice.”
When Verdi wrote a book titled “Chicago Blackhawks: 75 Years,” Reay provided an introduction.
The son’s story starts earlier, before the Blackhawks, the spotlights in Chicago Stadium, the frenzied crowds. He remembers as a boy his dad coaching the Sault Ste. Marie team in the Eastern Provincial Hockey League. The team traveled by two stretch limousines, less glamorous than it sounds, for the heat didn’t reach the rear seats. Reay drove one of the cars. Guys who played well got to sit up front.
The team’s success landed Reay a job coaching the American League’s Buffalo Bison.
“It was a step up,” Bill writes. “The Bison traveled by bus.”
The big show beckoned soon enough. Reay was too good a coach for it to be otherwise.
“He knew how to read people,” Bill said, when we met last week for a chat about his dad. The son learned through his father that there was more to coaching than blowing a whistle or drawing on a chalkboard. Billy Reay knew about his players’ lives off the ice. He was there for them. In turn, when the puck dropped, they were there for him.
“He wasn’t a screamer,” Verdi wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “He didn’t need to be.” Not when he could silence a room with a change of expression. His players had a name for that look: “X-Reay.”
Reay won 516 games coaching the Blackhawks from 1963-76. He was in the middle of that extraordinary run — an eternity for a pro coach — when Bill, a high school standout at Lane Tech, came to Madison to play for the Badgers. It was the father’s turn to be proud of the son. Billy never went to college. Bill got his pharmacy degree — Phil Mendel, the late great pharmacist/public address announcer, was a mentor — and made enduring friendships with teammates like Dennis Olmstead.
When Billy Reay left the Blackhawks in 1976, he left hockey, too. He started a second career in sales and wound up earning more money than he ever made coaching.
His son Bill left Madison for a time — he and his wife, Kris, lived in Minnesota — but returned so their kids could attend UW-Madison and to be nearer to Billy and Bill’s mom, who eventually moved to Madison themselves.
When Billy died in 2004, Verdi wrote, “He will be missed because he was missed 10 minutes after he turned in the keys to his desk, 28 years ago.”
Now, in the warm words of his son, he’s back.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.