MONTREAL – The hockey world was in mourning over the death of former coach Pat Burns.
Burns, 58, died Friday in Sherbrooke, Que., after a long series of battles with cancer.
“He was a confrere, we stick together, we competed against each other, we yell at each other, but when someone dies in the coaching fraternity, it’s a sad day,” said Jacques Demers, who replaced Burns as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1992 and later became his friend.
Burns was named NHL coach of the year with the Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins and later won a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils before he was forced to step down due to his illness. In 1,019 career games, he amassed a 501-353-165 record.
“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.”
Demers said he was pleased that Burns got to see work begin on an arena in his name being built in Stanstead, Que., but was sad that he did not get the required votes to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame before he died.
“Pat Burns should have been in the Hall of fame this year,” said Demers, now a member of the Senate. “Not because he was dying, but because he was a Hall of Fame coach.
“Five hundred wins, a Stanley Cup, three times coach of the year—to me it would have been so special for him, before he died, to be in the Hall of fame. We got the arena for him but I don’t know why that didn’t happen.”
In Toronto, the Leafs voiced their condolences and there was a special message from senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, who was general manager when Burns was hired away from the Canadiens.
“He commanded respect from the players and the team quickly had great success while taking on the identity of the head coach,” said Fletcher. ”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.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who met Burns at the announcement of the arena in Stanstead last March, said Burns was “known for his tough and gritty approach to the game of hockey.”
“He met his final and most difficult battle with that same tough and gritty spirit,” Harper said in a statement. “Canada has lost a sports legend today, but Pat Burns’ legacy will live on in the players and coaches whose careers he touched, as well as the young people who will skate in the Pat Burns Arena for years to come. He will not soon be forgotten.”
The Bruins issued a statement that said: “Pat was a great coach and more importantly a wonderful man. The Bruins are honoured to have him as part of our history.”
Player agent Pat Brisson played for Burns with the Hull Olympiques in the 1980s, a team that included future NHLers Luc Robitaille, Benoit Brunet, Stephane Matteau and Sylvain Cote.
Burns had a reputation as a tough coach, but Brisson said he was also fair.
“He was a really good person deep down,” said Brisson. “He was all about winning, but he cared. He protected his players. He pushed hard, but you felt protected.”
Stephane Richer became a 50-goal scorer under Burns in the NHL, but he also played for him in junior hockey. Richer said he probably never would have made it if Burns had not recruited him as a youngster.
“Part Burns may have saved my life,” said Richer. “I came from a little town in Quebec called Ripon, with 400 people. If Pat hadn’t got me out of my village, I don’t know where I would have ended up.”
Former Canadiens general manager Serge Savard told RDS television that Burns was the perfect antidote to Jean Perron who brought him up from their Sherbrooke farm club for his first NHL coaching job in 1988-89. He won his first Jack Adams Trophy that season.
“It was a matter of time before we brought him to Montreal,” said Savard. “I liked Jean Perron, but at the time we needed a coach that was tougher and that was Pat. He was a hard worker and he had the respect of the players.”