STANSTEAD, Que. – There was no sobbing or self pity from Pat Burns at what likely will be one of his last public appearances.
The once-robust NHL coach has been left thin and frail, with a raspy, high pitched voice, from the cancer that is ravaging his lungs, only a few years after he battled the same disease in his colon and liver.
Burns opted to forego any more chemotherapy or other treatments when it was diagnosed in 2009 that the cancer had returned. He admits he probably doesn’t have long to live.
But he was excited to fly up from his home in Florida to be guest of honour at a ceremony and news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other dignitaries on Friday to announce plans for a new arena that will bear his name.
The Pat Burns Arena is to be built on the campus of Stanstead College, although it will be used not only by the pricey private school but also by residents of Stanstead and surrounding municipalities in the Quebec-Vermont border region. It is to be completed in 2011.
“Excuse my voice – I don’t have the thundering voice I used to have to get players going on the ice anymore,” he said to break the ice when he took the microphone.
The only three-time winner of the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s top coach said he couldn’t refuse when the proposal was put to him by a friend in September to spearhead fund-raising for a new rink to replace the College’s crumbling 56-year-old facility.
He wanted to be part of something that helped young people and promoted hockey, and he has ties to the region, having owned a home nearby for many years.
“Maybe there’s a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux or a Sidney Crosby sitting here,” the Montreal native said, waving to a group of local minor hockey players at the announcement. “A young player could come from Stanstead who plays in an arena named after me.
“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.”
Senator Jacques Demers, also a former NHL coach, acted as emcee for the event. The invitees included New Jersey Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, former coach Michel Bergeron, and ex-players Felix Potvin and Marc Bureau.
In the front row were Burns’ wife Lyne and children Jason and Maureen.
“It’s a tough time for my family,” he said. “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 very happy that it happened.”
Harper pointed to the Adams trophies Burns won with three different teams – Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998 – as evidence that “he had the ability to go to any organization and get the best out of that organization.”
Burns coached in 1,019 NHL games from 1988 to 2004, compiling a 501-350-175 record. He won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2003 but had to withdraw from coaching after the following season when he was stricken with cancer for the first time.
The Montreal native, who turns 58 on April 4, has Hall of Fame credentials. When asked about it, Lamoriello said “I’m sure that’s in the very near future.”
Burns is still employed by the Devils for special assignments, mostly scouting, and gets to games in Tampa when he can.
“Pat is in Florida for the right reasons, because it’s best for his health,” said Lamoriello. “He’s on his own schedule.
“Whenever he can attend games or whatever he can do, it’s up to him. As you can see, he’s not letting go. He’s with us as long as he wants to be.”
Also on hand was Burns’ cousin and former agent, Robin Burns, also a former NHL player.
“When he said he’ll be looking down when they build the arena I got a lump in my throat because I know that will probably happen,” said Robin Burns. “His time is not a long stretch and for him to say that takes courage.”
A friend sent a private plane to Florida to collect Burns and his wife for the ceremony and take him back on Saturday.
Harper and Quebec MNA Pierre Reid announced that the federal and provincial government would each pitch in one third of the $8.4 million cost of the new arena under their economic development and infrastructure programs, with the other third coming from the Town of Stanstead, which is trying to raise the cash through private donations.