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Pat Burns: The people’s coach

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By Stu Hackel

He is not listed among the top 10 in any regular season statistical category for coaches. He is not considered much of an innovator behind the bench. He never coached any one NHL team for more than four seasons. And yet, when the fiery Pat Burns left this world last week at the end of a brave and rather public six-year battle against three forms of cancer , the deluge of tributes and the public response confirmed his place among the game’s great figures.

Burns dominated the weekend hockey news. The reaction reveals just how popular and forceful a figure he was in hockey circles and among fans, who could identify with his tough but caring, no-frills everyman personality. (Here’s Michael Farber’s 1988 profile of Burns from the Montreal Gazette.)

Shortly after his death, Burns’s name was the top trending topic on Twitter in Canada and it remained Number 1 well into the weekend. On Sunday evening, he remained in Toronto’s top 10 trending topics. But, indicative of the impact he had elsewhere, Burns’ name was trending fifth worldwide six hours after his death was reported. It was ninth in the U.S. — second in Boston, fifth in both New York and Philadelphia, seventh in Los Angeles, ninth in Washington DC., and 10th in Chicago and San Francisco. Mid-day on Saturday, he was still in the top 10 in Detroit.

No tribute was more widely seen or appropriate than the one on Saturday night at the Bell Centre before the Canadiens-Maple Leafs game….

…(and, as many regular hockey observers point out, no one does better pregame tributes than the Canadiens).

SI.com reader Lisa posted this comment Sunday under our previous Red Light post about Burns: “I was at the game last night where the Habs put together a beautiful video montage to honor Pat Burns. It was set to the Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ and that alone brought tears. Then, in the darkened arena, Coach Burns’s picture, and his name and “1952-2010″ were projected on the ice, to a standing ovation. The Bell Centre went entirely silent as we stood for a moment to remember him, and that alone was electric.

“The significance of the match between two teams he coached – and their arch rivalry — was keen…almost as if he’d chosen his time to go. And though we were jeering and being jeered throughout the beginning of the evening, to the end, for those moments in tribute to Coach Burns, we were one team. That is homage to his memory if there ever could be one.”

The CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada nationwide telecast made much of its non-game programming about Burns, including a segment with former Leaf Wendel Clark and former Hab and Leaf Kirk Muller and a video montage…

…and Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner

…and after the game, which the Canadiens won in a very entertaining fashion, 2-0, Habs goalie Carey Price disclosed that Burns — who Price never met — passed a message to the goaltender during the offseason through assistant coach Muller. Price would not disclose the nature of the message (it’s perhaps fair to speculate that Burns sent a word of encouragement to the goaltender, whose struggles last season made him the object of scorn among a portion of the Montreal fanbase), but, as quoted by Pat Hickey of The Montreal Gazette, Price told reporters that the message “touched me…I was surprised; it came out of the blue.

“He’s a special person,” Price added after posting his league-best 12th win and fourth shutout of the season. “He did a lot of great things for both these teams and he was definitely in our hearts tonight.”

Before the game, Mike Zeisberger of The Toronto Sun (who collected some good stories on Burns and had a short companion video segment with reaction from Leaf fans in Montreal) tweeted, “Outpouring of memories and emotions for Burns here in Mtl is incredible. He is the hot topic of almost every radio station.”

There was also a moment of silence for Burns in Boston on Saturday prior to the Bruins’ game against the Kings.

On the Bruins website, members of the organization provided thoughts and memories of the man who coached that team for 254 games between 1997 and 2000.

In The Boston Globe, Nancy Marrapese-Burrell recalled when Burns was fired after eight games in 2000 as the team struggled during a Western swing, writing, “When it became obvious that Burns’s job was in jeopardy, he maintained his sense of humor. During the long flight home from that fateful October trip, as the plane was about to touch down at Hanscom Field, Burns walked up and down the aisle singing over and over, ‘I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.’’’

What made Burns a unique coach? Many have echoed the reflections Joe Nieuwendyk, the Dallas Stars GM who Burns coached in 2002-03 when they won the Stanley Cup in New Jersey. They praised his direct approach to the game and his ability to distill a sport that can be complicated into some very simple instructions. He gave players clearly defined roles, told them what he wanted from them, and if they did it, they were alright with him.

Burns was a stern taskmaster who was respected by his players. Serge Savard, his GM in Montreal, told André Rousseau of Rue Frontenace that away from the rink, Burns was a loner. Rousseau also wrote that he was no saint. He bristled at criticism and angrily confronted journalists who questioned him. But he wouldn’t hold a grudge and in the end there was forgiveness all around.

Pierre Durocher of Rue Frontenac, who covered the Habs during Burns’ tenure, called him a hard man with a soft heart.

TSN also aired a number of segments. Here are those clips (there is some duplication of content, but the insights are valuable): Life of Pat in which Scott Gomez, Kirk Muller, Jacques Martin and Alain Vigneault share memories or Burns.

A Friend Remembered with Scotty Bowman, Larry Robinson and Wendel Clark.

Making Players Better with James Duthie, Matthew Barnaby, Pierre McGuire and Bob McKenzie.

These four from TSN are with Gino Reda, McKenzie and McGuire: Loss of a Legend, Sharing Memories, One of a Kind and A Great Heart, which might be the best of the four.

On TSN’s Sunday program, The Reporters, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber joined his regular cohorts, Damien Cox, Steve Simmons and host Dave Hodge to remember Burns (video) and Farber, who sits on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, provided a hint on why Burns was not selected this year, saying, “You don’t do it based on public reaction and, curiously enough, until the severity of Pat Burns’s cancer, I never heard a huge outcry saying ‘Pat Burns must be in the Hall of Fame.’”

About 71,000 people have joined the Facebook group “Let’s Get Pat Burns into the Hockey Hall of Fame – NOW!

Two prominent former Canadiens coached by Burns, Larry Robinson and Patrick Roy, said when they were interviewed by the Canadian Press that they felt Burns should be in the Hall. Each chipped in observations on the man’s different sides, Roy on how the coach motivated him and Robinson on Burns’s red-faced laughter on the bench after seeing Robinson fan on a one-timer and fall flat on his face.

On CBC.ca’s Scott Morrision, who covered Burns’s career when he was with the Toronto Sun, posted reflections. (“He taught us all how to live, to enjoy the moments and family and to never give up. He showed us courage and dignity to the end.”) They’re accompanied by a very good video of a Hockey Night In Canada interview he conducted after Burns was first diagnosed with lung cancer.

CBC.ca’s Tim Wharnsby, anther former Toronto newspaperman, also has a piece on Burns which shows various sides of his personality.

In New Jersey, Devils coach John MacLean, who played for Burns and whose first coaching job was as his assistant, said (quoted by Tom Gulitti blogging for The Bergen Record) Burns remained an active part of the team’s staff for as long as he could, speaking with MacLean and GM Lou Lamoriello via phone until a few weeks ago. ““He cared very much about this team and how this team was doing,” MacLean said. “You forget what he’s going through and I know Lou (Lamoriello) had been talking to him a lot, but even watching and seeing what we’re doing all the time, he cared a lot about the organization.”

Gulitti also got some reaction from those in the Devils organization who remain with the club from Burns’s coaching tenure.

“He was a hard-nosed guy,” defenseman Colin White said. “He demanded effort and whatnot every night, but over the years I got to know him on a more personal level. He’s really a family guy and he really cares for his friends. He’d like to have a good time and joke outside the rink. As a coach, we didn’t see that side of him so much.”

Burns’s funeral will be on November 29 in Montreal.

  • Published On Nov 22, 2010
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