STANSTEAD, Que. – Pat Burns needed propping up to take just a few steps, a helping hand to hold a ceremonial shovel, and a blanket to shield his weakened body from the crisp autumn air.
But the old coach still made it out Wednesday.
The defiant Burns, who is in the late stages of his battle with cancer, mustered enough strength to send a sharp message to those who had recently written him off.
“I’m not dead yet,” he cracked to journalists in a hushed tone, his once-booming voice now thin.
It was his first official event since several news outlets reported him dead just a few weeks ago.
He thought he had made his last media appearance in March, when he helped announce a project for the new Pat Burns Arena in Stanstead, a border town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
But the resilient ex-cop was back Wednesday for the groundbreaking ceremony.
He pulled up to the gathering riding shotgun in an SUV, slowly exited and then, with assistance, shuffled on his skinny legs to a seat.
“I’m still alive,” Burns, wrapped in a red blanket, told a swarm of reporters shortly after sitting down.
He had little else to say and didn’t speak during the news conference.
Burns looked a shadow of his burly former self when he turned out seven months ago. On Wednesday, his frail body and sunken cheeks showed signs his fight had taken an even greater physical toll.
Burns, known for pushing his players hard, placed his running shoe on the edge of a shovel and nudged it a few centimetres into the softened earth.
His cousin, Robin Burns, immediately belted out instructions to the Stanley Cup-winning coach.
“Get that shovel down there, Pat!” Robin Burns, a former NHL player, joked.
Numerous media outlets published reports last month that Burns had died—and were forced to swiftly backtrack when they realized the error.
The Pat Burns Arena is to be built on the campus of Stanstead College and will be used not only by the private school but also by residents of the town and surrounding municipalities in the Quebec-Vermont border region.
It is scheduled to open its doors next spring.
Burns has said he doesn’t expect to live until the opening.
”I probably won’t see the project to the end, but let’s hope I’m looking down on it and see a young Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux,” he said back in March.
Several hundred schoolchildren left class to take in Wednesday’s event. Many toted colourful, handmade signs carrying messages scrawled in crayon.
“Merci Pat Burns,” read a green placard held by a boy wearing a jersey of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the four NHL teams he coached.
Several ex-NHL players attended the event, about 150 kilometres southeast of Montreal.
Among them were former Canadiens players Guy Carbonneau, Stephane Richer and Doug Gilmour. Gilmour starred for Burns in 1993, when the Toronto Maple Leafs enjoyed their longest Stanley Cup run in decades.
Carbonneau, himself a former Habs head coach, said Burns always demanded a lot from his players.
“He was somebody who had a tough character, had a tough (style), but he was always fair with everybody,” Carbonneau said.
“(He) was able to laugh and was always a fighter and we can see that today.”
Burns was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and has fought it off twice.
But he opted to forgo any more chemotherapy or other treatments when he was again diagnosed with cancer in 2009.
Richer, who played for Burns with the Canadiens, visited his ex-coach at home in nearby Magog earlier in the day.
“It’s more than courage,” Richer said of Burns’ appearance Wednesday.
“He’s a guy who never gives up—he will never give up till the end.”
Burns coached the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils to some of their best seasons in recent memory.
He has Hall of Fame credentials after compiling a 501-350-175 coaching record in 1,019 NHL games from 1988 to 2004.
Burns is also the only three-time winner of the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s top coach. He won the awards with three different teams: Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998.
He guided the Devils to a Stanley Cup victory in 2003, but had to withdraw from coaching after the following season when he was stricken with cancer for the first time.
Many locals also attended Wednesday’s event—to celebrate what the arena will give to minor hockey in the region and to honour Burns.
“I hope he’ll be able to see the arena completed before he leaves,” said Yvon Belair, who owns a home in nearby Magog.
“I hope so. I’ll be proud of him.”