MONTREAL – Pat Burns’ death after a long battle with cancer stirred memories Saturday for those who played for the gruff former NHL coach.
For Scott Gomez, it also included a few laughs.
Gomez and Burns won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003, but early in the season he got a taste of his coach’s no-nonsense approach to hockey.
“I got kicked out of a game and we were on the power play,” recalled Gomez, now a member of the Montreal Canadiens. “He was (a new coach) to us.
“We lost the game and he came in the room and started saying ‘Whah, whah, whah’ for about two minutes. We went to Atlanta the next day and we were at a resort. One of the trainers heard the story and asked what had happened with the whah, whah and I said ‘Watch out, it carries over water.’
“The next moment my phone rang and it was Pat and he said ‘You’re the last guy who should be whah-ing me.’ Welcome to Pat Burns’ world.”
Burns, 58, died Friday in a palliative care home in Sherbrooke, Que., when he succumbed to his third bout with cancer since the illness forced him to step down as the Devils coach in 2004.
The Canadiens said the funeral will be Nov. 29 at Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal.
Burns won 501 regular-season games with Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey and it was perhaps fitting that the day after his death would include a game at the Bell Centre between his first two NHL clubs, the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs.
Among the Canadiens, Gomez and Brian Gionta played for Burns in New Jersey, while defenceman Hal Gill had him in Boston. It was on Burns’ suggestion that assistant coach Kirk Muller, then a New Jersey centre, was acquired by Montreal in a trade.
“He’s not suffering any more, but the hockey world lost a great, character guy,” said Gomez. “There were a lot of memories last night, a lot of laughs.
“He wouldn’t want you to sit around being sad about him. He was a tough hombre.”
Muller said Burns, a Montreal native, was so tough that players were surprised later to find out he had a human side—that he liked to play country music on his guitar and was a Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiast.
He showed it when he went to bail out former Canadiens Mike Keane and Brian Skrudland one night when they got into a much-publicized bar brawl in Winnipeg during a road trip.
“It’s a great story because, hard as he was, who was the first person you call when you need someone?” said Muller. “Coach or not, he was a friend. I think that’s why guys loved playing for him. It’s a sad day because he was such a great person.”
Not a man to be taken lightly, however.
“Russ Courtnall might have a good one,” added Muller. “We all know Pat’s an ex-cop.
“There was an incident in Chicago one time when Rusty challenged him and Burnsy was not dropping it. I don’t know if it would have gone to fisticuffs or not, but Pat was standing his ground and Russ said ‘OK, wrong guy.’ And the rest of us said ‘OK, that’s all we need to know.’ He was tough with us, but he was fair.”
“He was tough for a reason,” said Gionta, now the Canadiens’ captain. ”He was calculated in what he did.
“He didn’t just do it to rag on you. And for the amount of times he was on you, he was also there to give you a pat on the back when you needed it.”
Gill, a gangly young defenceman in Boston when Burns was his coach, appreciated his honest assessment of his play.
“He took a big chance on me,” said Gil. “I owe a lot to him that way.
“He was hard. He was a dead-straight, honest guy. He was a man’s man and a honest man and a great coach because of that.”