Pat Burns, who enjoyed instant success wherever he coached and who capped his tumultuous career by guiding the New Jersey Devils to Stanley Cup glory in 2003, has died of cancer. He was 58.
Burns died Friday in Sherbrooke, Que.
The former NHL coach battled cancer of the colon and the liver in 2004 and 2005 and hoped he had beaten the disease, but in January 2009 doctors found it had spread to his lungs.
The third time, he initially opted to forgo any further treatment, but then decided to go with chemotherapy to try to extend his life as long as possible.
“Just as they will remember Pat for his success as a coach, hockey fans also will remember his humour, his honesty, his humanity and his courage,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “As it mourns the loss of an outstanding contributor to the game, the National Hockey League sends heartfelt condolences to Pat’s family and friends.”
Burns remained as a consultant to the Devils for some time after being diagnosed with the third cancer. And, even though his voice had weakened, he did some morning hockey commentaries on CKAC, a French-language Montreal radio station.
Burns was the only coach to win the Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top bench boss with three different teams—Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998.
His last official public appearance was in early October, when he attended the groundbreaking ceremony for an arena to be named in his honour in Stanstead, Que.
The wise-cracking Burns couldn’t resist a jab at the media, some of whom had reported a few weeks earlier that he had died.
“I’m not dead yet,” he told journalists in a hushed tone, his frail body and sunken cheeks showing the physical toll the lengthy battle had taken.
“I’m still alive.”
After Burns admitted at his previous public outing last March he likely wouldn’t live another year, an online petition gathered thousands of names urging that he be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello said categorically Burns would be inducted “in the very near future,” but when 2010 inductees were announced his name was not among them.
“Pat was a close friend to us all, while dedicating his life to his family and to the game of hockey,” Lamoriello said in a statement. “Today, the hockey world has lost a great friend and ambassador.”
It was while coaching the Devils that Burns discovered something was wrong in the weeks leading up to the 2004 NHL playoffs. He announced the day after the Devils were eliminated that he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer.
“For those who know me well, I’ve never backed down from any fight, and I’m not going to back down from this one,” he said after finding out he was sick.
He received hundreds of cards and emails from well-wishers, but it was a tough year: Burns’ wife, Line, also underwent surgery in 2004, and their Florida home was damaged by a hurricane.
He let Lamoriello know the team should replace him, and Larry Robinson was named head coach.
Then, hopeful he’d kicked the dreaded disease, the second body blow was delivered—liver cancer. That forced him to have surgery and retreat to his lakeside home in New Hampshire to recuperate and undergo yet more chemotherapy in Boston.
He was speaking enthusiastically of returning to work when cancer struck a third time. It was then he admitted the end was near.
A big, robust man in his heyday, Burns was already thin and frail as he travelled last March from his home near Tampa, Fla., to southeastern Quebec for the announcement that the Pat Burns Arena would be built at Stanstead College and open in 2011.
“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” skating on the rink, he said at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I know my life is nearing its end and I accept that.
“As for my career, I always said to my kids, ‘you don’t cry because it’s over, you’re happy because it happened.’ That’s the main thing. I’m happy it happened.”
He was a sharp dresser and, away from the rink, he got around. He once sat in with a band and played guitar, he wheeled around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and he moored a speedboat at a lake north of Toronto.
Burns was the youngest of six children born into a working-class family in the St-Henri district near the old Montreal Forum. His father died when he was a boy and he moved with his mother and stepfather to Gatineau, Que.
Inspired by his cousin Robin Burns, a former NHL player who would act as his agent during his coaching career, he played hockey but wasn’t good enough to make it to the NHL.
So, he became a police officer and began coaching in minor hockey. He worked his way up in both endeavours. He became a detective in Gatineau and head coach of the local major junior team, which was then called the Hull Olympiques.
He took the Olympiques to the 1986 Memorial Cup final and was an assistant coach of Canada’s junior team at the world tournament in Piestany in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Faced with choosing between policing and coaching, Burns chose hockey at the urging of the new owner of the Hull team—none other than Gretzky.
“I flew to Edmonton to see Wayne about it,” Burns recalled in Dick Irvin’s book, “Behind The Bench.”
“He said, ‘Look, you’re gonna coach in the NHL one day.’
“I sort of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, sure. Easy for you to say.’ He says, ‘I’m telling you, you’re a good coach and someday you’ll be in the NHL. So why don’t you quit the police force? I’ll give you the same salary you’re getting as a policeman. Even a bit more if you want. Stay on for three years and I guarantee you someday you’ll be in the NHL. You’re a good coach.’
“So, I resigned from the police force and signed to work full-time for Wayne.”
He was on his way.
Burns moved up to the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL farm team in Sherbrooke, Que., and after only one year in the pro ranks was promoted to the big club.
“Six years before, I had bought scalpers’ tickets to watch the Canadiens play at the Forum,” recalled Burns. “The first time I walked into the dressing room when the players were there, I was shaking.”
He soon gained the confidence he needed to succeed at the big-league level and he led the Canadiens to the championship series in his first season in 1988-89, losing the Stanley Cup final to the Calgary Flames. He won more games than any other coach in the NHL (174-104-42) during the four-year span spent behind their bench.
Burns eventually got fed up with being under the microscope in the hockey-mad city.
“In Montreal, the rap was I couldn’t handle superstars, which was not true,” he told Irvin. “The fans got impatient, I think the media got impatient, and I got impatient with the media. It was time for me to go.”
He jumped at the chance to coach Toronto when then-general manager Cliff Fletcher offered him the job, and he took the Maple Leafs to conference finals in 1992 and 1993. He was fired after his fourth season but he’d left an indelible impression.
“Pat forged a tremendous bond, not only with a very good veteran team in Toronto, but also with Leafs fans everywhere,” Fletcher, the Leafs’ senior advisor, said in statement. “He commanded respect from the players and the team quickly had great success while taking on the identity of the head coach.
“The Leafs’ rise at the time was a testament to Pat’s strength, toughness and determination. Hiring him 18 years ago was easily my best decision in hockey, and we developed a great friendship that I will always treasure. Pat will be greatly missed.”
Burns knew he wouldn’t coach the Leafs forever.
“I think after you’re four or five years in the same town, even if you have a lot of success, and I had a lot of success in Montreal, I think it’s time to move on—unless you win the Stanley Cup every year,” he told Irvin.
After a year on the sidelines, he returned to the NHL with Boston. Eight games into his fourth season there, he was fired.
He often left the impression that he felt the world was against him, and had a rage to strive for success against all odds. His emotional style was a trademark.
He sometimes came across as being gruff or surly, mainly because he would not take guff from anybody, and he often spiked his comments with dark humour.
In talking about the amount of physical play in the Boston-Buffalo playoff series in 1999, he offered, “If this is World War Three, then what’s going on in that other series (Colorado-Detroit) is the end of the world.”
He’d yell at referees, hoping to stir up his players to greater efforts. Asked his view of the ramifications of criticizing NHL referees, he once suggested, ”You either get suspended, fined or have to give your first-born child to the league.”
Burns did some radio and television work before Lamoriello called in the summer of 2002. Once again, he was front and centre with an NHL team.
“I owe a lot to Lou,” Burns would recall. “I was out of the game for two years and I read a lot of articles saying I was done and I wasn’t the style of coach people wanted. He believed in me.”
Burns rewarded Lamoriello’s faith in him by using a tight-checking style that helped the Devils win the Stanley Cup. He was always defensive about his reputation as a defence-first coach but it was a way to win—and he took it.
“I coach hard work,” he once said.
And he loved to coach.
Feeling better again, he put the word out that he was ready to get back behind the bench, and was named to the coaching staff of the Canadian team for the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Halifax and Quebec City. He also attended Patrick Roy’s jersey retirement ceremony at the Bell Centre in the 2008-09 season at the request of his former star goaltender.
After it was reported he had been diagnosed with cancer for a third time, he asked for no one to pity him and kept up as many of his daily activities as possible, including scouting games in Tampa Bay near his home.
“I miss the practice times; I miss the morning skates,” Burns told the CBC. “There was something about before a hockey game—that electricity that existed—that I really, really miss and probably that’s why I like going to games because I can feel some of it, anyway.”
After his triumph with the Devils, he took the Stanley Cup to his cottage at Magog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, held it aloft while standing in the back of a pickup truck during a police-escorted parade, had a party at the yacht club and celebrated with his wife, son and close friends.
It was one of the most memorable days of his life.
After coming close so many times but never going all the way, Burns had the title he most craved.
He said later the Stanley Cup was the crowning achievement of his career.
“He definitely was the best coach I had in my career,” said former goaltender Felix Potvin, who played for Burns in Toronto. “He was hard, but honest.”
In 1,019 games as an NHL head coach, his teams won 501 games, lost 353, tied 151 and lost 14 in overtime. In 149 playoff games, his teams won 78 and lost 71.
He is survived by his wife, a son, and a daughter.