"He would show up at games with a long beard because he had missed a week because he was doing some undercover stuff," said Luc Robitaille, then a 17-year-old rookie with the Olympiques. "He was pretty scary."
Twenty-one years later, Burns, always revered as the toughest and most hardened man in any rink he was in, raised the Stanley Cup after coaching the New Jersey Devils to a Game 7 win against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
He had reached the pinnacle of the sport on his fourth NHL coaching stop in 15 years, a tour through the League that had as much to do with fabulous results as it did his disciplinarian tactics.
"Pat was exactly what we needed at that time," ex-Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said. "We had a team that was a perennial Stanley Cup contender for eight or nine years, but we were getting complacent. We needed a little spark, a little fire, and Pat was the perfect coach."
In between his early days as a cop/coach until the day he stepped away to fight a battle against cancer that years later ended his life, Burns became a three-time Jack Adams Award winner with three Original Six teams, a mentor to Hall of Fame players, a shoulder for his coaching friends to learn on and one of the most respected coaches to ever step foot behind a bench in the NHL.
He won the Jack Adams Award with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins before winning the Cup with New Jersey. He coached in 1,019 regular-season games, winning 501. His teams reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs 11 times in his 12 full seasons.
Monday night in Toronto, two days before the fourth anniversary of his death, Burns will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Burns isn't around to tell his story, so some of the people who grew close to him, clashed with him, admired him, respected him, fired him and won with him are honored to be his voice.
Here are tales of Pat Burns from five people in the sport who knew him well:
"We had never gotten past the first round, and within a few years we ended up in the finals of the Memorial Cup. All of us that played for him, we've stayed close friends and dear to him because we all kind of grew up together."
Robitaille vividly remembers how intimidating Burns could be, but now he realizes why that was the case. Burns was a cop; Robitaille and his Hull teammates were mostly teenagers. He spoke. They listened. He told them to do something. They did it, mostly out of fear.
"He was one intense individual," Robitaille said. "He rewarded the guys for hard work, but we were scared of him."
Hull went 54-18-0 in the 1985-86 season to finish first in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and as the runner-up to Guelph in the Memorial Cup. Robitaille had 191 points, but he left for the NHL after that season and Hull wasn't the same, finishing 26-39-5 in the 1986-87 season.
The drop-off didn't hurt Burns. Former NHL forward Andre Boudrias noticed him during scouting trips for the Montreal Canadiens. Boudrias convinced Montreal general manager Serge Savard to take a flier on Burns.
Savard hired Burns to coach the Sherbrooke Canadiens, Montreal's affiliate in the American Hockey League. He was not disappointed.
"Every year I was asking Andre, 'Who is the best coach in the [QMJHL]?' He mentioned Pat Burns to me two years in a row. Eventually the job got open in Sherbrooke and I didn't call anybody else. I just called Pat and gave him the job."
Sherbrooke went 42-33-4 and lost in the first round of the 1988 Calder Cup Playoffs under Burns. Montreal, under former coach Jean Perron, had a 103-point season and lost in the Adams Division Finals to the Boston Bruins.
Savard wanted to make a change in Montreal. He didn't have to interview candidates.
"I didn't even try to get anybody else," Savard said. "Pat was direct in line and I gave him the job, which was not a mistake."
Burns won the Jack Adams Award and took the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season. They lost to the Calgary Flames in six games.
"He came as a policeman, so he had that reputation that it's law and order and that's the way," Savard said. "He's not like that really, but he was a good motivator. All my players in the first couple of years, they loved him and they would go to war for him."
Burns brought the Canadiens to the playoffs in each of the next three seasons, but they never got past the second round. Savard said the message eventually grew stale, the intimidation factor went away by the end of the 1992 playoffs.
"I was not going to fire him," Savard said. "I told him if he wants to continue we'll work hard together. He said, 'No, no, no, Serge, I want to go on, I want to go somewhere else. I did what I had to do here.'"
Savard knew Burns had a shelf life as a coach because of his disciplinary ways. It didn't scare off other teams.
"He had two offers on the table before he decided to go," Savard said. "One of them was in Toronto and Rogie Vachon called me and wanted him in L.A. It was not like he was out of a job."
Burns chose Toronto. Cliff Fletcher, Toronto's general manager at the time, called it a "credibility coup" for the Maple Leafs.
"Getting Pat for the Toronto Maple Leafs was maybe the biggest thing that happened to the franchise in about two decades. We had a press conference at center ice and we had to have 10,000 people there in June. He was a huge personality. He was a great coach."
Under Burns, Toronto improved by 32 points from the previous season and reached the Campbell Conference Final in the 1992-93 season. Burns won the Jack Adams Award again.
"Pat was very demanding, but he was a real smart guy," Fletcher said. "He made sure that the best players on his team bought his program. He always had a great relationship with his best players."
No matter the amount of talent they had, the players had no choice but to respect Burns. How could they not when he could tell stories like this:
"When he was an undercover police officer they locked him up in Alcatraz of Canada, Kingston Penitentiary, for a month," Fletcher said. "The only one that knew he was there was the warden. Pat was in there to bust up drug rings in prison. He was in there for over 30 days and he said every night he went to sleep with the fear that the warden would die of a heart attack and no one would know he was there. He busted the drug ring.
"Tough guy. Tough guy. But a real good guy. You know what, he was a man's man."
Burns brought the Maple Leafs back to the Western Conference Final in 1994, but Fletcher fired him after 65 games in the 1995-96 season.
"He did a great coaching job, but the shelf life wouldn't be that long only because he was hard," Fletcher said. "He was hard, but he was a great coach.
"I respect him more than any coach I've ever known. He was terrific."
"He could sometimes be a big teddy bear. He was awesome."
Gilmour first met Burns after he got the job in Toronto. He quickly found out about the intensity that everyone was talking about, but he also found out more about the man behind the intensity.
"Away from the rink you could go talk to him, have a beer with him," Gilmour said. "He loved playing guitar in a band. He rode his Harley. He had other things he wanted to do. But he was very committed. He loved the guys. He loved the game of hockey."
Burns had a funny side too.
"We were playing a little joke in the dressing room in Minnesota, putting cups of water on top of the door so guys would come in and it would fall on him," Gilmour said. "Well the next guy who comes in is Pat. His coif is all done up properly, and we're all going, 'Oh no.' Todd Gill was sitting at his seat and when he saw Pat's hair go all down in front of his face he was just laughing and fell right off. He took the heat for that one, but I was the culprit putting the water on the door. Pat took it in good spirits. He just laughed and said he'd get us back."
Gilmour said he can't remember if Burns did get them back for that prank, but he eventually got under Gilmour's skin.
"I had to play against him when I was in Montreal and he was in Jersey, and that wasn't easy," Gilmour said. "He had guys all over me just to [tick] me off. He knew that would [tick] me off. They won the game. That's just the way he worked."
"His strength as a coach was courage. He said the things that needed to be said. Some of it wasn't pretty at times and some of it was directed at star players, but he had the courage to do that stuff. You need to have a lot of self-confidence, but that's what he had."
Burns and Hitchcock met in 1986, when they coached against each other in the Memorial Cup. Hitchcock was coaching the Kamloops Blazers, Burns the Olympiques. They were 34 years old.
"He had a full time job as a cop and a full time job as a coach, then he opted into coaching," said Hitchcock, now the coach of the St. Louis Blues. "I coached and had a full-time job and I opted into coaching. We both got to know each other. We had a lot of similarities."
They never lost touch.
"When we really leaned on each other a lot was when we got fired," Hitchcock said. "Emotionally and physically we were there. He was my biggest supporter when I got fired and I tried to do the same for him. We were the phone call that never went away."
Burns coached his final game against Hitchcock. It was April 17, 2004 in Philadelphia. Burns announced he had colon cancer the next day.
"We never talked until the end, but I knew he wasn't well," Hitchcock said. "I knew he wasn't well standing on the bench. And the day before the final game I got a phone message from him and he said, 'Hitch, I'm not doing well, I'll call you after the game.' The next morning we talked for two hours. We became even closer."
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Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer