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Ulmer: Courage Guided Burns

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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There is a great story about Pat Burns. Burns used to tell it himself.

When he became a cop in Gatineau, Quebec, he was issued his uniform.

There were shoes and slacks and a hat and assorted bits of equipment.

And then there was the shirts. Eighteen of them.

On his first day on the job, Burns walked into one of the same rowdy bars he used to frequent, only this time he came as the law.

He stood in the middle of one raucous inn and demanded calm.

Burns never saw the punch that sprayed blood across his chest, but he did notice the effect on his uniform.

Ah, he said to himself. Eighteen shirts.

It was a mistake Burns almost never made.  There would be no weakness. If he was in charge, he was going to wear it.

“There were a lot of great memories that came especially with Pat, Doug Gilmour was saying a while ago. “One of the funniest ones was his first day here.  He asked about the hockey club and he said ‘yes’ we have Darryl Gilmour.’ I was like ‘thanks, that’s a good start.’ “

“It was a great friendship. He was an intimidating man. He just looked at me and I got scared. “He got the best out of all of us as players.”

Burns died today and his last public utterances were maybe his best. The man who said he wouldn’t know Bill Berg if he ran over him with his car said while it addles the mind and ravages the body, Cancer brings one blessing: it softens the heart.

Burns was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004. He survived liver cancer in 2005 but the latest affliction, lung cancer, ended his life.

Several months ago, he suspended intrusive treatment for his cancer and returned to his home province of Quebec to be with his family.

Gilmour, the linchpin of two third-round appearances under Burns, noted the obvious: with life eventually comes death. He pointed to a bestselling book that told the story of a mentor and his writer pupil. “I think if you have read Tuesdays with Morrie (you would understand). He has an opportunity to be around his family and his friends.  We really don’t like talking about it, but I think everybody would love to have the chance to say goodbye before you go.  We all love him.”

There was no beat too tough for Pat Burns, a three time Jack Adams Award winner who, like so many, got bigger while their body withered. The lion behind the Maple Leafs bench died in the arms of his family and while many admired him for his dogged battle against Cancer, he never did.

The man who won 133 games behind the Leafs bench and a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils knew cancer wasn’t about winning and losing. Those were hockey words.

But a bed in a ward can be like a spot on the bench.

Circumstance, talent, bounces, schedules largely determine a coach’s fate. The coach makes the best of what he has and the good ones never bemoan bad breaks. They don’t say ‘why me? They say ‘what now?

In the end the qualities Pat Burns loved most in his hockey players, courage, guided him right up to the final whistle.  If you have been following his story, you will know he died enveloped in grace. Another soft heart has been stilled.
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