Monday, four years after his death, former Leaf coach Pat Burns will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Burns won 501 games, the seventieth best total in league history, captured a Stanley Cup in New Jersey in 2003 and sits 11th in playoff wins with 78.
But it was his resurrection of the Leafs that made him a special figure to Leaf fans.
The Leafs had not posted a winning record in a dozen years leading to Burns’ 1992 hiring and had won just two playoff series in that period. In his first two years with the team, Burns took teams built around Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin to the third round of the playoffs and helped re-establish the lustre of the Leafs logo.
Burns died after a five-year wrestling match with cancer at 58. It was the end of an incomparable life that saw him win the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award for the Montreal Canadiens, Leafs and Devils.
Burns’ attention to detail and demands of his players were famous. A one-time police officer in Gatineau, Quebec, Burns played the role of tough, unyielding cop and was so successful at drawing the best out of players that his teams often collapsed in his third or fourth year on the job: not because he asked for too much but because they had already given all they had.
To get a picture of the magnitude of the man, mapleleafs.com spoke to his boss, a star player, a confidant and one of the dozens of role players Burns employed and sometimes browbeat.
The boss: Cliff Fletcher. Maple Leafs GM from 1991-1997.
“For us hiring Pat Burns was an absolute no-brainer. He had done a very credible job in Montreal. Because he came from a contending team like Montreal he brought instant credibility to our franchise.
“The good thing about Pat when he took over, every player was accountable and that went from Doug Gilmour on down. He installed that in the team, that pride in the logo, pride in the team. He insisted on a work ethic that was second to none in the league. Every practice, every game, every shift had to give the maximum effort or you had a very hard time staying on a Pat Burns team.
“Some of Pat’s persona was theatrical. He had a little bit of that from being a cop but let’s face it successful coaches in all sports have that. But Pat gravitated to his star players like Wendel and Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin and Dave Ellett. They were involved in a lot of decisions with him which was unusual at that time. That’s how Pat ran his team. The result of that was all the top players bought into his philosophy and led the way in practice and during the games. That’s why he was able to have the success he did. He was tough on his best players but it was tough love.
“That doesn’t mean Pat treated every player the same way. The players on the bottom end of the lineup, they were the whipping boys. When we had Billy Berg, Peter Zezel and Mark Osborne playing on the checking line, those were the two most successful lines we had.”
The checker: Bill Berg. Maple Leafs winger from-1993-1996.
“When I was traded to the Leafs my wife Wendy was reading me the stories in the Toronto papers on the way to the rink. It was all pretty positive until Wendy read this quote from Pat that said “I wouldn’t know Bill Berg if I ran over him with my car.” She didn’t want to tell me but when I got to practice all the guys were joking about it and carrying on. Burnsie poked his head into the dressing room and asked me to co me into his office. It was sort of funny. His first comment was “Cliff told me I should apologize to you.”
“But he never really apologized. That was Burnsie.
“Without a doubt he was the most demanding coach I ever played for. The big thing with Pat was fitting people into roles. He felt his role was the taskmaster. He was the guy who would call you out when you were not paying up to par.
“The one thing I don’t ever hear too much about Burnsie is how fabulous a teacher he was. Back then not many teams played the trap and forechecked a certain way. With Burnsie it was detail, detail, detail. He taught. It was incredible. In that first meeting he said: “this is what is going to happen. We play different than any other team in the league. It is going to take you a little while to get used to the system, eventually what will happen is that it will just be second nature to you .He was exactly right. Once we all caught on we just caught fire.
“One time we played Montreal in exhibition. Peter Zezel and I were killing a penalty. As I said, it was exhibition and the intensity wasn’t there. He screamed at us on the bench, he screamed at us in the dressing room. We didn’t get a chance to go out for the next penalty kill.
“Sometimes he’d take you into the office and scream at you there. Other times he would let you know he wanted a certain thing. It wasn’t all cracking the whip. Sometimes he knew you could do better and he would put you out there.
“Pat didn’t give much individual praise. He would praise us as a team and say we had a great road trip or something. What I learned with Pat is that if he wasn’t talking to you and you were still playing, things were good.
I remember going in 1993 going into overtime against Detroit in Game 7. I have to tell you, it was was quite a rough series and I was pretty nervous. Burnsie came in. He said at the start of the series no one gave us a chance. If someone had asked, we would have jumped at the chance to play next goal wins in overtime in Game 7. I thought, ‘you know he’s right. We’re playing on house money. He had that ability to say the right thing at the right time.”
The star: Wendel Clark, Maple Leaf, 1986-1994, 1996-98, 2000.
“Burnsie had a way of pushing buttons and getting everyone to play his style. He was a tough guy about it. There was no nonsense.
“He wanted to be the leader of the ship. He wanted full control about what was going on off the ice and on. He wanted the full package. Practices were hard right from the first day through playoffs.
“Most of the team played a trap style but it really depended on what was happening on the ice. You played with Dougie, you had a little more leeway.
“If a coach is going to win he has to figure out his dressing room, who he can do what to. Every player acts differently whether they are being scolded or praised. Coaches can’t use the same treatment across the board or the results won’t work.
“Did he care about his players? I think so but a lot of time after Burnsie chewed a guy out the players would sort of rally around that player and say “why is he doing that sort of thing.” It was a tactic. Everybody took their turn.
“He set the game plan and played all year to get us that way. Every player on the roster accepted his or her role to do it. That’s the toughest thing, to get every player to buy into their role for the greater good no matter what that role is. He got all the guys to do that.
‘He had the tough cop routine, he kicked trash cans and water coolers but Pat also was great at coming up with a game plan. He knew how to run a game and he knew what he needed to do to help his team find a way to win.”
The confidant: Harry Neale, broadcaster, 1986-2014
“Pat Burns was never a lover of the media but because I was in the media and I was a coach before it took a fence down that might have been up and he and I had a nice relationship.
“Burnsie was a guy who sometimes was very friendly and wanted to have lunch or go for a beer or sit down on the bus or the plane and just talk about his team or about what was going on in the league. Quite often I’d run into him after a game if we were staying in the same hotel and have a beer with him or the night before the game if I ran into him in the lobby he would kind of ask “what are you doing for supper tonight?
“It was a very nice relationship but one that I have never had with any other coach other the ones who I coached as players.
“What the public saw was not what he was like if you got to know him. As a strict disciplinarian and kind of a grouchy guy if you looked him from the media vantage point, he wasn’t like that at all when the game was over. I think, most coaches this is true, they have a characterization behind the bench or in the dressing room that’s not necessarily like the one when they are not directly involved in their teams. That was Burns. He liked to tell stories, joke, ask me about things that happened during my career. He had a very good sense of humor but you never saw it if you didn’t know him.
“He was a real good guy and a great addition to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He had the formula for winning. He used it and was highly successful.”