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Pat Burns may not have coached here, but his impact was significant

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The hockey world lost a colorful personality and a man who has influenced his share of NHL players and coaches over the years when Pat Burns passed away on Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Pat Burns
Burns is the only man to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year for three different teams, collecting the hardware in 1988-89 with Montreal, in 1992-93 with Toronto and in 1997-98 with Boston. 

With 501 career regular season victories, ranking 14th in league history (and passed late season on that list by Stars coach Marc Crawford), Burns led his teams to four Conference Finals, two Finals, and a Stanley Cup as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 2003, where he relied upon a veteran center named Joe Nieuwendyk.

The current Stars General Manager has only good things to say about a man who also compiled 78 playoff wins, which ranks him eighth all-time. 

“It’s really sad,” Nieuwendyk said. “I saw him on TV recently, and he looked pretty frail and you always think of Pat as a big presence, a boisterous guy, so it was hard to see that happen. I kind of stayed in touch with him from time to time after our time together in New Jersey. He was just a real good hockey man. He was one of the best and maybe the best coach I’ve had in my career.”

That’s quite a statement from a player who skated for such well-respected bench bosses as Terry Crisp and Dave King in Calgary, Bob Gainey and Ken Hitchcock in Dallas, and Pat Quinn in Toronto, among others. Nieuwendyk acknowledged that while Burns had a well-deserved reputation as a taskmaster, his authoritative style really worked.

“I only had him for one year, but I really liked his approach,” said Nieuwendyk of the season he  earned his third Stanley Cup ring. “He had a real presence about him. When he spoke in the locker room and when he ran the bench, he got guys’ attention. I think the one thing that I really enjoyed about him is that he really understood the game. He knew the game and his approach was really direct and very solid. He treated the veteran players very well, which helped me, because when I went there, I was a veteran guy. He was harder on the young guys, but I didn’t mind that approach.”

Burns had somewhat of a gruff demeanor, perhaps coming from his background as a policeman in Quebec, but his players always knew he was fair.

“He was tough, but he was fair,” said former defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre, who played four seasons under Burns in the NHL and one in the minors, now a Colorado Avalanche assistant coach. “You always knew where you stand with him. When you were playing well, he was there to support you and when you weren’t playing well, you knew. You knew. But he was a great guy for the game, a great coach and I’m also grateful that I had him for so many years.”

He was diagnosed with colon cancer during the 2004 playoffs, fought it during the NHL lockout of 2004-05 and when cancer was discovered in his liver late in ‘05, he resigned as Devils coach, but still did some work with New Jersey over the years as a ‘special assignments’ coach. When the cancer re-surfaced last year in his lungs, Burns opted not to continue treatment. 

“It’s sad and I want to sincerely offer my sympathy to the family,” Lefebvre said. “Pat was a battler, he was courageous and did so ‘til the end. He was great for me, he was one of the few coaches that believed in me, especially early in my career. He taught me a lot. He taught me how to play hard, not only every game, but every practice. I’m very grateful for what he did for me.”

That sentiment echoes the feelings of so many players who skated for Burns over his 14 years as an NHL coach. 

With all of Burns’ accomplishments, which includes 149 total playoff games coached, sitting sixth in league history, there was a popular movement backing his candidacy for the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder’s category. 

But when the most recent class was announced in July and inducted last week, Burns was not among the honorees. Neither was Nieuwendyk in his first year of eligibility as a player, and most observers feel both should have gotten in. And many believe both will eventually make it into the Hall, but if and when Burns does, he won’t get to enjoy the moment. 

“With him, I think the timing for him to go to the Hall of Fame would have been really special,” Nieuwendyk acknowledged. “It’s really unfortunate.”

Regardless of if he ends up in the Hall of Fame, Burns has put his indelible stamp on the face of today’s NHL, as his many proteges carry his memory and ideas forward.

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