MONTREAL – In a city where it is often said hockey is like a religion, the life of Pat Burns was celebrated as if he were a saint.
Political dignitaries and people from across the hockey world converged on Mary Queen of the World Cathedral on Monday afternoon to pay homage to the legendary coach and pay their respects to the father, grandfather and husband who passed away Nov. 19 after a long battle with cancer.
In the front row of the cavernous cathedral was Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a few rows behind him were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, and joining them was a jam-packed crowd of over 1,200 full of the great many players Burns influenced over a coaching career that spanned 1,019 games with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils.
"He never changed, he always stayed the same," said Burns' former captain with the Canadiens, Guy Carbonneau. "He was tough when he needed to be, honest when he needed to be. He was fair with everybody and I think that's what people enjoyed, and that's why there are so many people here today."
Burns had former players from each of his coaching stops in attendance. From the Canadiens there was Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Shayne Corson, Patrick Roy and Larry Robinson. From the Maple Leafs there was Doug Gilmour, Tie Domi, Mark Osborne and Sylvain Lefebvre. From Burns' years with the Bruins there was Raymond Bourque, Adam Oates and current Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill. And finally, from his years with the Devils, there was Scott Stevens, along with current Canadiens Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
"For a guy who was as hard-nosed as he was and demanding, look at all the players who are here today," said Muller, an assistant coach with the Canadiens. "He was a super person. On the outside he was really hard-nosed, but inside he really cared about you and as a player you knew that. He was always there for you when you were in tough times."
But in addition to those Burns touched through hockey, there were people from his life away from the game who wanted to be sure to pay their respects. It is no secret that Burns was a police officer in Gatineau, Que., before he got into coaching full time, and there were about 25 people from the Gatineau police on hand, including the current chief of police who was coached by Burns in Midget hockey.
If there was one thing that rivaled Burns' love of hockey, it was motorcycles, and a legion of his buddies from the Red Dawgs and Road Dawgs motorcycle clubs made the trip to Montreal.
"He often liked to say that the Red Dawgs were a bunch of poodles," said Christopher Wood, one of Burns' riding buddies who delivered one of the eulogies. "The irony of it was that Pat was president of the Red Dawgs."
But above all, it was Burns' ties to the New Jersey Devils that were the strongest. A floral wreath depicting the Devils logo was on stage, while there was nothing showing any of the other three teams Burns worked for.
The entire Devils organization, from owner Jeff Vanderbeek and general manager Lou Lamoriello down to every current player, was in attendance.
And sitting front and center, just in front of the altar, was a replica of the Stanley Cup holding Burns' ashes, carried into the church by his wife, Line. It was with the Devils that Burns finally got to touch his life's ambition, and it was the Devils that remained Burns' employer to his dying days.
Lamoriello delivered a touching, heartfelt eulogy and began with the day he travelled to New Hampshire in 2002 to meet Burns for the first time to see if he would be interested in his vacant coaching job.
"There was something about him that day that was unique and different," Lamoriello told the crowd. "There was something genuine about him. What he said, you believed. What he said was not only what he preached, it was what he practiced."
As Burns' ashes were taken out of the church at the end of the ceremony, all the Devils players and coaches formed two lines leading out the door, as if they were knights saluting a king upon his exit.
And Burns was a Devil to the very end, with Lamoriello recounting a conversation he had with him last month as his team was struggling out of the gate.
"I said, 'How are you doing?' and he said, 'The hell with how I'm doing, I just watched you play!' And he meant it," Lamoriello said.
That was not the only moment of levity over a funeral that lasted over two hours.
Burns' cousin Robin, a prominent member of the Montreal Irish community notorious for his funny bone, spoke of some of the more embarrassing details of Burns' childhood growing up in the working class Montreal neighborhood of St-Henri and in Gatineau.
He spoke of how Burns used to be afraid of thunderstorms as a child, and that at the first sound of a thunder clap he would go running into bed with his sister Diane, or how he wore shorts and a beanie cap to church when he was an altar boy at St-Alyosius Church in Gatineau.
He even managed to make light of Burns' unique urn on display for everyone to see.
"There's a time to be born and a time to die, but 58 seems far too soon," Robin Burns said. "But you packed a lot of living into those 58 years. And look at you now, all packed up into that Stanley Cup."
Wood, Burns' riding buddy, also recounted a conversation Burns had with his best friend Kevin Dixon, where he said earlier this fall that he was planning to ride his Harley Davidson from Franconia N.H., to Magog, Que.
It was a 90-minute ride under normal circumstances, but a tad ambitious considering Burns' deteriorated health.
"Kevin told him he was crazy," Wood said. "Pat just told him, 'What’s the worst that can happen? I crash and die?'"
While that last anecdote elicited a hearty laugh from the crowd, it also showed that Burns was comfortable with what was happening to him, had accepted that his time had come and tried as best he could to pull as much as possible out of his final days on Earth.
Lamoriello said he saw Burns a few days before his death, and received that very message loud and clear even though Burns was so weak he could not even speak.
"He was at peace because he knew what everyone in this world thought about him," Lamoriello said. "At that given time, he was saying he was good."
And that is exactly how he will be remembered.
Author: Arpon Basu | NHL.com Correspondent