Friday, November 19, 2010
Rest in peace Pat Burns (1952-2010)
I've been sitting here struggling how to write this blog for a few minutes now...oh we all knew this day was coming at some point, but it doesn't make it any easier to deal with the loss of Pat Burns to cancer tonight, ending a six-year fight that inspired the hockey world. It's often said of people when they pass on that they were unique and irreplaceable. In the case of coach Burns, nobody ever doubted the validity of those sentiments.
Just from a pure hockey sense, he was a character. Tough and demanding on the one hand, while possessing a deadpan sense of humor and personality on the other, I followed his career long before he ever became a Devils coach. Just when I was getting into hockey in the early 90's, Burns was leading the Leafs to two straight Conference Finals, in the first one having a memorable screaming match with opposing coach Barry Melrose that showed his competitiveness.
Ironically enough it was a book by Stan Fischler called simply 'Coaches' (written in 1995) that opened my eyes to just what type of individual Burns was. Everyone who follows hockey knows that Burns became the only coach to win three Jack Adams awards for Coach of the Year, and on three seperate Original Six teams, to boot - Montreal in 1989, the Leafs in '93 and Boston in '98. Maybe not as many hockey fans also realize that Burns actually worked as a cop in the Gatineau police force in Montreal for sixteen years and became a detective-sergeant, working undercover when almost by accident he got into coaching.
After filling in for a friend coaching Bantam and Midget hockey, he eventually impressed enough to land a head job with the Hull Olympiques Junior team, coaching players such as Luc Robitaille. As fate would have it, Wayne Gretzky bought the Olympiques and convinced Burns he had a future in coaching. So it was that Burns finally retired from the police force and sure enough, Gretzky proved a prophet when Burns first became a head coach of the Canadiens' AHL outfit in Sherbrook, then promoted to the head job in 1989.
You couldn't have scripted much of a better start to Burns' career as he won the Jack Adams in his very first season and led the Habs all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they eventually lost in six games to Calgary. Ironically enough it was Gretzky who torpedoed his next big chance to win the Cup in Toronto, when his hat trick in Game 7 of the Conference Finals stopped the Leafs a game short in 1993. After losing in the Conference Finals again to Vancouver the next year, Burns eventually moved on as the Leafs rebuilt and wound up in Boston, winning his third Jack Adams.
Still, it looked as if he would come up short of his dream of a Stanley Cup after Burns got fired from Boston and was out of the NHL for two years. As he so eloquently put it later on, 'I was in the mountains in New Hampshire when Lou called'...Lou being of course Lou Lamoriello, GM of the Devils who was unhappy with a team that had underachieved in 2002 and wanted a disciplinarian to restore order in New Jersey.
That would prove to be a marriage made in heaven, or hell as some Devils fans might put it with a wink and smile. Although not as talented as the '95 and '00 versions that won Stanley Cups, the '03 team won a special place with me for its heart and determination. Despite doubters along the way, the Devils edged out the Flyers by a single point in a tough division race that earned New Jersey an important second seed, which kept them away from the tougher part of the draw that year. While the Flyers would slough it out with Toronto and eventually fall to conference powerhouse Ottawa, the Devils gained confidence with relatively easy five-game victories over the Bruins and Tampa Bay during the first two rounds.
Still, the Devils would eventually have to face Ottawa, acclaimed the best team in the league that year and Canada's best chance at seeing a team win the Cup in a decade. Without home-ice that series, the Devils still raced out to a 3-1 lead - but reached a moment of truth after the Senators won Games 5 and 6, beating us in overtime of Game 6 for our only home loss during the playoffs that year. In Ottawa for Game 7, the Devils had the worst start you could have when Magnus Arvedson scored a soft goal inside a few minutes and star center Joe Nieuwendyk, hurt late in Game 6 was unable to go anymore after trying to play through a couple of shifts.
It was at this point that Burns came up with perhaps the most important motivational magic of his career during the first intermission, telling his team that 'there's a guy in there (Nieuwendyk) who's won a couple of Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe and he's got tears in his eyes cause he can't help you guys out'. In hockey terms this was as close to 'Win one for the Gipper' as I've ever heard, and sure enough the Devils would rally back to take a second period lead, then with the game tied 2-2 in the final two minutes of regulation Grant Marshall and Jeff Friesen combined to win the game, with a Marshall pass going through the legs of Wade Redden and Friesen putting it home for one of the many important goals he would score that postseason.
Although the Devils would face surprisingly stiff opposition in the Finals against the Mighty Ducks, who won all three of their games in Anaheim the old coach would finally have his first Stanley Cup win as Burns and the Devils held serve at home, thanks to the coach's near flawless line-matching and a boisterous crowd at the old Continental Airlines Arena. Not to mention a decent amount of talent and a lot of heart. Perhaps it's fitting that Marshall and Friesen combined for the most important goal of the playoffs, since neither had a particularly distinguished career before that moment and both flamed out pretty fast afterward. Just another example of how great coaching can bring out the best in everyone.
Unfortunately, real adversity was just around the corner when at the end of the 2004 season Burns first found out he had colon cancer, then liver cancer in 2005 prevented his return to the Devils' bench and forced his retirement. Still, Burns remained part of the Devils family, scouting and consulting all while he was fighting cancer for the remaining few years of his life. Just when it seemed as if the worst was behind him, Burns found out he had lung cancer last year and from then it seemed only a matter of time.
Yet it was how he fought the good fight that most people will remember in the end. Burns even managed to get behind the bench one more time, in 2008 when he got named to the coaching staff of the Canadian team for the IIHF World Championships but more than even that, he was determined to live his life on his terms - initially forgoing treatment when the final cancer was discovered and doing as much work as he could for the Devils and hockey. Towards the end, he was still doing commentaries for CKAC, a French-language Montreal radio station. Fortunately he lived long enough to see groundbreaking on Pat Burns Arena in Quebec, scheduled to open in Stanstead college sometime in 2011.
While Burns himself lived life without regrets, many who respect and admired him no doubt do regret the fact that he will not live long enough to see his career be honored with his eventual induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Still, anyone who knew him or followed his career will be looking forward to the day when it eventually happens. Perhaps the biggest honor any of us can bestow on the coach though, is by remembering who he was as a person and following his example. Hopefully you're healthy and happy wherever you are now, Coach.