MONTREAL – Pat Burns cut his teeth in the National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens, so it couldn’t be more appropriate that the current edition of the team has three players who credit him for having a huge influence on their own NHL careers.
Hal Gill, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta spoke glowingly of their former coach Saturday, one day after Burns passed away at age 58 after a long battle with cancer.
“The hockey world lost a great guy, a character guy,” said Gomez, who won a Stanley Cup under Burns with the New Jersey Devils in 2003. “I went through a lot of memories last night and a lot of laughs about Burnsie. He was definitely one of a kind.”
Gionta was beginning his first full year in the NHL when Burns took over the Devils at the start of that championship 2002-03 season, and when he was named captain of the Canadiens during training camp two months ago, one of the first calls he received was from his former coach.
“I was honored to have him as a part of my career, he definitely shaped me as a player and it was great to have him as a young guy,” said Gionta. “So it was an extreme honor when he called and wished me congratulations and said he was proud of me. It’s just the type of guy he is. We had a quick little chat, and it’s something I’ll remember.”
Gill spent his first four seasons playing for Burns with the Boston Bruins, but he revealed Saturday that he had to go the extra mile to win over his new coach. In fact, if it weren’t for Jacques Laperriere, Burns’ longtime assistant with the Canadiens, Bruins and Devils, Gill wouldn’t have even made that team in 1997.
“He told me right when I made the team in Boston, ‘Well, Jacques wants to keep you around. I don’t really see it, but I’m going to go with Jacques on this one. I’ll tell you what, if you’re not the first one on the ice and the last one off then you’re not going to be here.’ I still take that to this day, I stay out on the ice until the end,” Gill said. “They took a chance on me. I’ll never forget that.”
During the next four years, Gill says he learned many more valuable lessons from Burns, a coach who cut no corners and was as brutally honest as they came.
“The biggest thing was his commitment to being a coach and to being a strong, stern man and portraying that to his team,” Gill said. “He taught me a lot about being a man and standing up for yourself and doing things the right way. Some of his rants after games and the next day at practice were legendary. They weren’t fit for anyone’s ears outside the locker room, but they were legendary rants.”
As an appropriate coincidence, the two teams with which Burns made his mark as an elite NHL coach will meet Saturday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens are planning a tribute to Burns prior to the game, and if past pre-game ceremonies in Montreal are any indication, it should be a touching one.
The notion that the Canadiens or the Leafs should play this game in honor of Burns is laughable to Gomez, who says he was not the type of man who would take kindly to that kind of sentimentality.
“I don’t think Burnsie would want it that way, to be honest with you,” he said. “Knowing Burnsie, he’d probably slap you in the face for saying something like that.”
Gomez and Burns had their share of run-ins with the Devils. While he was well established and in his fourth NHL season when Burns took over the Devils, Gomez said Burns' trademark tough-love approach shaped his career.
“We won a Stanley Cup definitely because of him,” Gomez said. “He changed the attitude and the makeup (of the Devils). You don’t realize when you’re younger, but when you get older you realize he made you tougher.”
Gomez last spoke to Burns a little more than two months ago, a few days before an erroneous reports of Burns’ death caught wildfire on the Internet.
Though the reports were premature, Burns and Gomez both knew during that conversation that it would probably be their last one. Gomez said he will cherish the fact he had a chance to express to Burns how he felt about him and what kind of influence he had.
“He wouldn’t want you to sit here and be sad about it,” Gomez said. “That’s the thing about Burnsie, he was a tough hombre. Even when he announced that he was sick (to the Devils players) he didn’t even flinch. He just kind of said it, and that was it. I’m glad I got to tell him how special he is to me the last time I got to talk to him, because he is.”
Gomez wouldn’t elaborate on that day in April of 2004 when Burns walked into the Devils room and made the brief announcement that he had colon cancer, just before the Devils were to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. But Gomez does remember that the typically matter-of-fact way Burns delivered the news to his players almost made it as though it wasn’t real.
“We had a game the next day against Philly, and he didn’t want any of the attention on him,” Gomez said. “He just kind of announced it, and it didn’t really sink in.”
But it has clearly sunk in now, six years later, with Burns’ agony and suffering finally finished.
“I’m glad I got to talk to him and tell him I love him,” Gomez said, “because I owe him a lot in my hockey career.”
There are hundreds of current and former players who could say the exact same thing.