By Stu Hackel
Pat Burns passed away on Friday, a gruff but funny and beloved figure in the game and the only coach to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's Coach of the Year with three different teams -- Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998. He coached the Devils to the 2003 Stanley Cup and deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which he sadly did not live to see.
But he did live to see construction begin on a rink named in his honor in the Eastern Townships of Quebec...
...and learn how much he was loved when his death was reported erroneously earlier this year. At that time, Bob McKenzie of TSN, who was a close friend of Burns, wrote just about the best thing you could want to read about Pat, and you should read it sometime this weekend.
Jim Kelley of SI.com, who also writes for Sportsnet.ca, has written a very personal and insightful remembrance of Burns on that website and you should read that one too.
Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber also got to know Burns quite well, beginning over 22 years ago, when Burns became coach of the Canadiens and Farber was a columnist for The Montreal Gazette. SI.com's NHL producer, John Rolfe, spoke with Farber about Burns shortly after the news of Burns' passing broke.
What are your thoughts on his passing?
Everyone who knew Pat well, admired him. I consider myself one of those people. I’m terribly saddened. Pat was a first-class judge of people and talent. That’s what made him such a fine coach and a fascinating person. He won a Stanley Cup with the Devils, in 2003 and that was his ultimate achievement in hockey. He also won three Jack Adams Awards with three different teams. As far as the Hall of Fame is concerned, Pat left a really extraordinary body of work. I’m sure that will be judged accordingly. I had a really soft spot for the man. He was a storyteller. There was always a story with Pat, and that was one reason why he was so popular.
What are your favorite Pat Burns stories?
My favorite was when he was a cop [with the Gatineau police force after playing minor hockey]. He went to a domestic dispute and a woman knocked him cold with a frozen turkey. He could be very self-deprecating. I first met him when he was hired to coach the Canadiens in 1988. I was working for the Montreal Gazette at the time and I thought, “Who would know a former cop better than his partner?” So I went and sought out Pat’s former partner. He told me what a tough cop Pat had been. A few days later, a Canadiens PR person said. “Pat’s furious with you for what you wrote!” When I asked him why, Pat said, “I put a lot of people in jail. Some of them can actually read. They may come and get me!”
But I calmed him down and we went for a walk in a Montreal neighborhood called Ste. Henri where he grew up. We walked around and he shared his earliest memory. He was about four years old. It was March 17, 1955 and his father took him to see the smoke from the Rocket] Richard riot…
What was he like as a coach?
Pat wasn’t a silver spoon coach. He was very blue collar. He could be stubborn. Not everyone cared for Pat’s style. He loved third-liners. They were stars to him, and he played a very defensive style. Once when he was coaching in Boston, his boss, Harry Sinden, told him, “I’ve seen coaches employ a 1-2-2, and some even employ a 1-4, but you’re the only one I know who employs an 0-5.”
He was a man who had certain values and very strong beliefs about everything, particularly how the game should be played. In Game 1 of the 1989 Cup final, when Pat was coaching Montreal, Claude Lemieux was lying on the ice after one of his dying swans, and the team trainer was hopping over the boards to go help him. Pat grabbed the trainer’s sweater and said “Let the S.O.B lie there.” He thought that would send Lemieux a message that he didn’t care for his antics.
And one more: There was a playoff series, the Canadiens were going to lose to the Bruins in an elimination game at the Forum, and what Pat did at the last second was he canceled practice and herded everyone onto a bus. They drove around Montreal into some of the poorer parts of the city and he said, “Listen, you guys, you win the game, you lose the game, you all get paid. You make a good living. It’s not life or death. But what you do matters to these people. They are the ones who will be hanging onto what happens tomorrow night." He had way of putting the onus on players.
And did they lose?
They lost, but sometimes a bus ride like that is more important and that one stayed with anyone who took that ride with Pat.
The Devils, for whom Burns worked as a member of the staff for the last eight years, released a statement in which team President/CEO/General Manager Lou Lamoriello said, “On behalf of the ownership, management, staff, and players of the New Jersey Devils, we are all deeply saddened by the loss of Pat Burns. Pat was a close friend to us all, while dedicating his life to his family and to the game of hockey. He has been part of our family here in New Jersey for eight years. Today, the hockey world has lost a great friend and ambassador. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Line, and the entire Burns’ family.”
Goalie Martin Brodeur shared his memories of Pat Burns with Eric Marin on the Devils' website, calling him "demanding....“Not winning was not acceptable to him, and he kept us accountable." Brodeur added Burns was also a friend during tough times.
The Canadiens issued a statement as did Bruins president Cam Neely, who said in part, ""Pat was a great coach and more importantly a wonderful man. The Bruins are honored to have him as a part of our history."
Renaud Lavoie of TV network RDS tweeted a quote from Cliff Fletcher, the Maple Leafs GM who hired Burns to coach Toronto and is still a member of their organization. "Hiring him 18 years ago was easily my best decision in hockey, and we developed a great friendship that I will always treasure," Fletcher said.