About six mildly disappointing weeks into the season of the best team I ever covered, the beleaguered rookie coach declared: "I don't want to be coach of the year. I want to be coach for a year."This, friends, is journalism gold. Pat Burns, dead too soon, would make it a year and then some. Alas, his fabulous 1988-89 Canadiens, in a rare Stanley Cup Final meeting of the NHL's two best teams, would lose in six.
SI VAULT:Montreal Goes Up In Flames (06.05.89), by Austin Murphy
After their early stumbles, the Canadiens managed to accumlate 115 points. Calgary had 117 in this pre-three-point match, 80-game NHL. The ultimate outcome was of no particular import -- the only thing we typists root for is a good story -- but the process was a joyride, not merely for the quality of the hockey, but the insight and accessibility of the people involved.
You have to put the 1988-89 season in context. I was a columnist at the Montreal Gazette at a time when dead-tree journalism was the agenda-setting goliath, the primary filter that distilled the team for the city. Truly, there was no better time to work at newspapers, especially if you could hang around a team that mattered so much to so many people. (Indeed, newspaper work in the '80s might be the genesis of the phrase "happy medium." )
Pat Burns understood media. He had a rule: he met the beat guys in the corridor, but columnists were always welcome in his cramped office. A story: a local AIDS specialist held a press conference to announce that one of his recently deceased patients had been having sex with dozens of NHL players. In his office, Burns took a circuitous route around the subject for 10 or so minutes. When I was literally about to say, "OK, thanks, Pat," and try my luck elsewhere, the coach blurted, "And I've told (the trainer) to put condoms in the trainer's room. And I don't want those guys using 'em for water balloons. This stuff is important." This was only part of the cornucopia that a notebook guy enjoyed on a daily basis. You could walk into the dressing room, and, unlike today except in maybe Detroit or Pittsburgh, the number of players you wanted to talk to dwarfed the number you didn't. (They also hung around the room instead of being trotted out one at a time to dole out platitudes in thick media scrums.) There was the brilliant and quirky goalie, Patrick Roy. There was the unapologetically amoral Claude Lemieux. There was the towering Larry Robinson, the institutional memory and grand link to the dynasty teams of the late 1970s. There was the dry Mats Naslund, the smart-aleck stylings of Chris Chelios, and the cutting wits of Brian Skrudland and Mike Keane, as well as the freewheeling Craig Ludwig -- among others. The '88-89 Canadiens also had the single greatest deadline player in NHL history: Bobby Smith. He might hold the puck too long, but he was liberal in passing out quotes. You could leave a hole in a deadline column, race downstairs at the Forum and ask Smith a single question. He always grasped where you were going and could compose well-reasoned answers in grammatically correct sentences. Even paragraphs. On some nights, you could get in and out of the room in less than a minute.
There was something honorable about this team, at least in how it approached its job -- Pepe Lemieux excepted. During the Cup final, Lemieux, who often played two positions, right wing and prone, lay on the ice just feet from Montreal's bench, writhing in an effort to draw a penalty. This was not viewed as a whatever-it-takes gambit, but some gamesmanship unworthy of the CH. As the trainer started to clamber over the boards to minister to Lemieux, Burns grabbed the trainer's sweater and told him, "Let the SOB lie there."
There have been better teams in the history of an organization that has won 24 Cups, but maybe none as genuine.