Pat Burns and the '88-'89 Montreal Canadiens were journalism gold
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."
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
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."
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.