Sometime in the late 1990s, Pat Burns gathered his Montreal Canadiens at the twin C’s that denoted centre ice at the Montreal Forum.
That day, just as practice was wrapping up, Burns discreetly nodded towards an emaciated man sitting in one of the bright red seats.
“See that man,” Burns said. “He’s was one of the greatest defencemen ever.”
The man in the stands was the great Doug Harvey, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner, dying of cirrhosis after years of spiraling alcoholism.
Hockey fans were shocked two weeks ago when Burns was photographed at the ground breaking ceremony for an arena that will bear his name. Burns had long been built like Yogi the Bear. The man in the viewfinder was rake thin. He said he hoped to someday look down to witness a new generation of Gretzkys and Lemieuxs flow out of the rink that bears his name.
But in a gesture to the reality of his situation, he said “I probably won’t see the final project.”
Word came in Thursday that Pat Burns was taken to a Florida hospital on his 58th birthday but he was reportedly released late Thursday afternoon. He has lung cancer and this is his third and last dance with the disease.
When people are dying the sharp edges wash away. In their place understanding and a sense of peace are accelerated beyond all understanding. That magnificent grace is life’s final gift.
Pat Burns was a cop in Hull before he became an NHL coach. On his first day of work, he was issued 10 shirts. Everything about the job made sense except the shirts. On his first shift, he walked into one of his old hangouts and instructed everyone to settle down. He expected compliance. Burns was hardly a stranger to this bar.
He turned just in time to take a full-on punch to the face.
As the blood gushed from his nose, Burns remembered: this is why they gave him 10 shirts.
There was about Pat Burns a perceptible sense of menace. He once had to be fished out of a crowd before he waded into the opposing bench.
was one of the Leafs’ finest coaches. A Kerry Fraser call that the veteran official has long regretted is cited by Leaf fans as the only reason the team didn’t meet the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 final. Neither team has since been to the championship round.
Burns won the Jack Adams Award for best coach three times. His 501 wins, struck with the Canadiens, Leafs, Bruins and New Jersey ranks 11th on the all-time list. He has a Stanley Cup ring, courtesy of the Devils.
As a coach, Burns was an unrepentant proponent of defence. The 1992-93 club was runner up in the league for fewest goals allowed. The year after, the Leafs placed sixth.
The lockout washed away any momentum the franchise had garnered and Burns was soon on his way to Boston. He spent four seasons with each of his first three teams, just long enough to set a standard that would be impossible to match with players who had put in three years of Pat Burns.
It was always a cop’s fine balance, the marshalling of intimidation with gentle persuasion and no matter where he went it couldn’t last forever.
Burns never made the mistake he made that night in the bar. He always knew who his friends were, always knew they could never be the players from whom he demanded so much. He made more than enough to do him fine.
But someday, someday soon, a father or mother will point to a newspaper picture of a heavy set man with a robin’s head of hair, bellowing to someone out of the frame.
“See that guy,” the parent will say. “He was one of the greatest coaches of all time.”