When you look at the body of work, it’s pretty difficult to fathom exactly what the Hall of Fame’s selection committee was thinking when it chose not to induct Pat Burns as a builder last June.
And it has nothing to do with the fact Burns was dying and likely wouldn’t live to enjoy the honor if it weren’t bestowed on him immediately. The man was one of the greatest coaches of his time, certainly among the best defensive mentors in the history of the game.
Those who view it as a disgrace that Burns was not elected in the summer and inducted a couple of weeks ago will now have to take solace in knowing it will be done posthumously. But it will be done because not even the Hall of Fame can ignore Burns’ accomplishments forever. (And those who are under the misguided notion Burns was passed over in favor of the first women inductees couldn’t be more wrong. There was plenty of room to induct Angela James, Cammi Granato and Burns. The selection committee simply dropped the ball.)
In fact, in a way it’s almost fitting Burns didn’t get the seal of approval from hockey’s most established old boys’ network the first time around. More than anything, the Hall of Fame’s selection committee is comprised of too many back slapping over-50 white men for whom admittance to the Hall is based as much on loyalty as it is on-ice accomplishments.
But if Burns proved anything throughout his career, it was an ability to crash through the glass ceiling. His career as a coach was forged through hard work, an enormous presence and an ability to get the most out of his players. He never had the advantage of having played at a high level, nor was he owed any favors from anyone. He became a successful major junior, minor pro and NHL coach by sheer dint of determination.
There had been others before him, of course, most notably people such as Mike Keenan and Roger Neilson. But when Burns began his ascendancy up the coaching ranks, the job had still been almost the exclusive domain of former players and those with ties to the power brokers in the game. Burns, like Keenan and Neilson, came into the world of high-level hockey as outsiders and had to earn every single job they ever had.
Keenan and Neilson were both teachers. Burns was a police officer who worked his way up through minor hockey before earning his big break with the Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques of the Quebec League. The year was 1984-85, the same year Ken Hitchcock began his junior coaching career with the Kamloops Blazers and a year after Jacques Martin joined the Peterborough Petes as an assistant.
“People who played the game and were part of the NHL looked at guys like us with wary eyes,” Hitchcock said. “You had to earn the players’ respect and the only way you could do it was with knowledge and hard work. You had to prove yourself and Pat did that.”
Burns and Hitchcock went on to win Stanley Cups as NHL coaches and Burns and Martin both won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. But neither Martin nor Hitchcock has had the overall success Burns had, as evidenced by the fact Burns won coach of the year with three different organizations. Burns’ regular season credentials are impeccable and if Mike Gartner and Marcel Dionne can be Hall of Fame players despite a dearth of playoff success, surely Burns is their superior when it comes to coaching. Not only did he win the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, but he guided the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup final in 1989 and twice led an overachieving Toronto Maple Leafs teams to conference final.
Hitchcock first met Burns at the 1986 Memorial Cup when their teams were playing in the tournament and they forged a bond that lasted almost a quarter of a century. From the time he first began coaching against Burns, Hitchcock was struck by the presence Burns had over his teams.
“He was able to get every team he coached to play with the same energy and passion he had,” Hitchcock said. “It was as if the players were an extension of Pat. He was able to get his team to buy into the team commitment and he was able to do it in a hurry.”
Burns was a relatively young man when his coaching career was taken away from him. With 501 wins on his resume when he was forced to leave the bench in 2004, Burns undoubtedly would have become one of the winningest coaches of all-time had he been healthy. And he was one of the few coaches who could have had a long shelf life with the New Jersey Devils, a team that has made a habit of piling up wins in the regular season. Perhaps he would not have reached Scotty Bowman’s mark of 1,244 career victories, but there’s little doubt he would have made a good run at it.
So Pat Burns should not be robbed of the Hall of Fame just because he was robbed of his health, his career and, ultimately, his life.
It will happen. The old boys’ network just needs a little bit of time to realize Burns deserves it.
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