A man who spent 16 years taking confessions was behind his desk making one. "I grew up three blocks from this place," said Pat Burns, "and I never dreamed I'd be sitting here."
"Here" is inside the Montreal Forum, home of the Canadiens, and Burns, 36, is Montreal's first-year coach.
"I remember sneaking in the back door one night," said Burns, "and asking [former Canadiens defenseman] Jacques Laperrière for his autograph." Laperrière is now one of his assistant coaches.
There was a knock on the door. "Yeah?" said Burns, suddenly sounding gruff. "Oui?"
February 27, 1989
Right wing Stèphane Richer poked his head in the door. He had a question about the next day's travel schedule, and he and Burns conversed briefly in French. When Richer was finished, he took pains to close the door softly behind him, which wasn't surprising. Ever since the celebrated John Kordic incident, the Canadiens have tended to be on their best behavior when visiting Burns.
Early in October, Kordic, an archgoon and forward who has since been traded from Montreal to the Toronto Maple Leafs, burst into Burns's office and demanded—in language unsuitable for general audiences—to know why he was playing so little. Burns answered by flinging an ashtray that sailed past Kordic's head and shattered against a wall. "I told him he could come back when he felt he could talk to me like a decent human being," says Burns. "I missed him deliberately, but I made my point. I respect the guys. What I really want from them is to respect me."
They do, and that's one of several advantages Burns has over his predecessor, Jean Perron. Last season the Canadiens were a talented but troubled group. The players ripped Perron, he denounced the players, and the veterans on the team bickered with the younger players. The Montreal press feasted on the discord. "For a team that finished with 103 points, we were very unhappy," says left wing Mats Naslund. The Canadiens got sadder still when the Boston Bruins upset them in five games in the Adams Division playoff finals.
What Montreal needed was a little law and order, and Burns was just the man for the job. Before he began coaching hockey full-time in 1983, he was a police officer. The discipline he brought from the station house to the Canadiens has paid off. As of Sunday, Montreal led the Adams Division by 24 points with a 40-15-7 record and had given up 2.88 goals a game, second-best in the NHL. Most important, the Canadiens have shown few traces of the peaks-and-valleys play that plagued them last season.
The first ill Burns addressed was the rift between his older and younger players. "You could even see it on the ice," he says. After a 5-4 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29 left Montreal with a 4-7-1 record, the Canadiens flew to Hartford, where Burns suggested that they lock themselves in a hotel room to air out their differences. "Everybody threw his wash into the same machine, and that was that," says Burns. Not co-incidentally, Montreal lost only two of its next 22 games and has remained the hottest team in hockey.
Burns, who coached the Sherbrooke Canadiens in the American Hockey League for a year before Montreal managing director Serge Savard selected him to replace the technocratic Perron last June, is the youngest coach in Canadiens history. His greatest strength is his ability to motivate. "He's not an X's and O's guy," says goalie Brian Hayward. "He's the type of guy you really want to play for." Adds defenseman Larry Robinson, "He's not afraid to snap the whip."
One case in point came on Jan. 18 when Richer, claiming illness, took himself off the Forum ice in the third period of a 3-1 victory over the Hartford Whalers. Burns saw to it that Richer did not suit up the next night in Hartford. On Jan. 21, right wing Claude Lemieux got tossed out of a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs after berating an official. When Lemieux proceeded to trash the dressing room in a fit of pique, Burns saw to it that Lemieux paid for the damage.
One of the most venerated players Burns inherited was Guy Carbonneau, a seven-year veteran whom some hockey observers consider the NHL's best checking center. In October, Burns told Carbonneau to start playing two-way hockey or ride the bench for the final 10 minutes of those games in which Montreal was trailing or tied. "I don't need defense in those situations," says Burns. "I need goals."
The idea of benching Carbonneau bordered on heresy in Montreal. Nonetheless, Burns benched him—and got the result he wanted. A prolific sniper in junior hockey, Carbonneau began going to the net again—and scoring again: He has 19 goals this season, compared with 17 for all of last year.
The team-wide improvement in morale is evinced by a recent rash of practical jokes among the Canadiens: Vaseline on doorknobs, shaving cream in gloves and helmets, all the old standbys. Burns was victimized several times before he decided to make a retaliatory strike. A friend on the police force in Gatineau, Que., where Burns used to work, mailed him an envelope of a clear ultraviolet powder, which is used to track counterfeit bills. "When you try to wash it off, it turns mauve," says Burns, grinning wickedly. "The more you scrub, the darker it gets."
One morning Burns arrived early for a practice and paid a covert visit to the players' loo. After the workout the dressing room abounded with red faces and mauve cheeks.
Because of his police work, Burns sees nothing to joke about in drinking—one of the NHL's most popular extracurricular activities—and driving. Last season Burns took the Sherbrooke Canadiens on a field trip to the station house in Gatineau. The players were invited to have a few beers and then take a Breathalyzer test. "They saw how few drinks it takes to get you above the limit," he says.
This season Burns has cut back on the amount of beer on team flights. "If you put five cases in front of the guys, five cases are going to disappear," he says. "If you give them two cases, what are they going to do, parachute from 30,000 feet for another cold one?"
Eighteen years ago Burns was a washed-up junior player—a brawler—with no college education, two bum knees and one cosmic question: What am I going to do now? One of the board members of his junior team was the police chief in Gatineau. Recalling Burns"s facility with his fists, the chief invited him to give law enforcement a whirl. Burns said he would try it for six months. "I ended up staying 16 years," he says with a laugh.
Gatineau is a city of about 80,000 on the Ontario-Quebec border, 100 miles west of Montreal. Gatineau's most attractive quality to the tens of thousands of Ontarians who visit annually is that its bars stay open until 3 a.m. According to Burns, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at 1:15, 15 minutes after closing time for saloons in Ontario, all hell would break loose as thirsty Ontarians began to storm across the border for a nightcap.
Now when Burns sees players smear Vaseline on their faces before games (to avoid being cut should they fight), he says with mock contempt, "We didn't have time to put grease on our faces before breaking up barroom brawls."
One Christmas Eve in the late 1970s, Burns was directing traffic when a car approached, weaving crazily. Burns waved the driver over and told him to leave the car and walk home. "It was Christmas Eve, and I wanted to cut him a break," says Burns. But the man became belligerent, so, Burns says, "we ended up brawling in the middle of the street, and I had no choice but to bring him in."
Two hours after the man was released on his own recognizance, he returned with a rifle and, says Burns, started "blowing the police station apart. Pieces of cement were flying everywhere." The man eventually surrendered, and no one was injured.
After seven years in uniform, Burns, who had taken courses in drug enforcement, fraud identification, scuba diving and hostage negotiations, became a detective and was used in numerous undercover operations. One involved the infiltration of a motorcycle gang. For that assignment he grew a beard, wore his hair in a ponytail and rode a Harley-Davidson; he even went so far as to have HARLEY-DAVIDSON tattooed on his left deltoid.
Another time, Burns spent two weeks undercover in a Quebec jail. "Not even the guards knew I was a policeman," he says. And it gets worse: "Every few nights I had to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs on the inmates' TV."
All the while, Burns had been moonlighting as a hockey coach, first at the bantam level and then in a local midget league. In 1983, while still a cop, he became coach of the Hull (Que.) Olympiques, an independent Junior A team. The Olympiques made the playoffs and the next summer got a new owner, who asked Burns to fly to Edmonton for a meeting. "Pat, I want you to stay on as coach," said the owner.
"I'm not sure I can do this again," said Burns, recalling the grind of working two jobs at once.
"Why don't you ask for a sabbatical leave?" asked the owner.
"My superiors will never go for it."
"Well, I know a few people here and there. Maybe if I made a couple phone calls...." Then the owner, Wayne Gretzky, winked.
Burns got his sabbatical. In 1985-86 the Olympiques reached the finals of the Memorial Cup, junior hockey's equivalent of the Stanley Cup. But the more success Burns had as a coach, the more unsettled his future became. The Gatineau police were willing to have him back, when Gretzky offered him a three-year contract with the Olympiques after the '86-87 season. Savard then offered him a three-year contract to coach Sherbrooke.
Unsure of how to proceed, Burns went back to see Gretzky. The Great One looked at the contract he had offered Burns and then studied the one Savard had extended to him. Satisfied that all was well, Gretzky tore up the first contract. "You're crazy if you don't go with the Canadiens," Gretzky told him. "They're one of the classiest organizations in professional sports."
A month into this season, Burns looked crazy for having joined the Montreal organization. Thanks to the Canadiens' sluggish start, he was taking heat from all sides. To avoid passing premature judgment on Burns, La Presse waited until the season was six games old before asking, in a front page headline, WILL HE LAST UNTIL CHRISTMAS?
By Christmas, Montreal had all but sewn up the Adams Division crown, and Burns had been anointed a savior. But he hasn't forgotten the rude welcome he received from the press. "It cut me and left me to bleed on Ste. Catherine Street," he says. "Now I'm winning, so I'm a genius. If I lose, I'm dead."
With discord having given way to discipline on the Canadiens, it looks as if Burns will be alive for a while longer.