Famed NHL coach Pat Burns, dead from cancer at 58
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Friday, November 19, 2010 10:59PM EST
Pat Burns, a tough-talking cop turned wildly successful NHL coach, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 58.
He died Friday, the New Jersey Devils announced.
He was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer in 2004 and 2005, and it was hoped he had beaten it back. But in January 2009, it was found the cancer had spread to his lungs.
Burns initially decided to forego further treatment but eventually tried chemotherapy in an attempt to extend his life.
No matter where he coached -- Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New Jersey -- he turned teams into winners. He guided the 2003 New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup and is the only coach in NHL history to win the league's top coaching award with three different teams.
He won the Adams trophy with Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998.
"We are all deeply saddened by the loss of Pat Burns," said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"Pat was a close friend to us all, while dedicating his life to his family and to the game of hockey. . . Today, the hockey world has lost a great friend and ambassador."
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.
Known as much for his sharp sense of humour as his tough talk behind the bench, Burns made a joke to the media, who had wrongly reported his death a few weeks before.
"I'm not dead yet," he said in a quiet voice. "I'm still alive."
But he said he knew he didn't have long in this world.
"I probably won't see the final ending to this project, but I know one thing, let's hope I am looking down on the next . . . Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky skating on the rink."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was among the attendees of the groundbreaking of the Pat Burns Arena.
In March, when Burns said he didn't think he would live another year, thousands signed a petition to try to get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was not inducted in 2010, but Lamoriello says Burns will earn the honour "in the very near future."
Wendel Clark, a former Toronto Maple Leafs captain, told CTV News Channel: "Pat made a huge fight. … It takes a personality and a will like Pat's to be fighting as long as he was."
Clark described Burns as a "tough father figure" to all the players he coached.
"He was one of the gruff taskmasters," but the coaching persona was there to make players stronger and to bind the team together, he said.
"Outside the game, away from the rink, in the summertime, if you ran into him as a player, he was a totally different person. That was the Pat who was the friend to the players," Clark said.
Burns loved the game, life and all the players he coached, he said.
It was while coaching the Devils that Burns learned he had the disease. After the team was eliminated from the 2004 playoffs they announced their coach had 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," Burns said at the time.
As an NHL coach, Burns had a looming, robust figure. At his last public appearance, he was thin and frail, hardly recognizable. His voice, once a bellow that could make an NHL star cringe, was hushed.
"I know my life is nearing its end and I accept that," he said.
Burns was discussing a return to the NHL before his third diagnosis of cancer. But he said he was not bitter.
"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."
From cop to coach
Burns was the youngest of six kids who grew up near the old Montreal Forum. His father died when he was still a boy and Burns moved with his mother and stepfather to Gatineau, Que.
Burns played hockey but never made it to the NHL, and became a police officer. It was then that he began coaching minor hockey and eventually became head coach for the local major junior team, the Hull Olympiques.
He took the Olympics to the 1986 Memorial cup final and was an assistant on Canada's junior team that year.
As his hockey career started taking off, so did his policing career, as he was promoted to detective.
But he knew he had to make a choice -- and he flew to Edmonton to talk to Gretzky about the decision.
"I flew to Edmonton to see Wayne about it," Burns said 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."
Burns moved to the Montreal Canadiens' AHL team, and after only one year there, found himself behind the bench of the NHL's most storied franchise.
"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."
But it didn't take him long to find his feet. In his first year he led the Canadiens to the 1988-1989 Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Calgary Flames.
In four years behind the Canadiens bench, he won more games then any other coach in the league during that period.
However, as all coaches know, you can't stay at the same job forever, and Burns soon found himself coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs, taking them to the conference finals in 1993 and 1994. He was fired after his fourth year in Toronto, but left a big impression in the hockey-mad city.
"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.
Burns took a year off before signing with Boston, where he coached for four years.
The veteran coach had won three Jack Adams trophies when his time with Boston ended, but he still had no Stanley Cup ring.
That would come when he moved to New Jersey in 2002, winning hockey's biggest prize in 2003.
"I owe a lot to Lou," Burns said. "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."
He used the Devils oft-hated defensive style to great effect, even though it earned him his share of critics.
"I coach hard work," he once said.
When he took the Stanley Cup to his cottage in Quebec's Eastern Townships, he held it high while standing in the back of a pickup truck during a parade and held a party at the yacht club with his family and friends.
He said it was one of the best days of his life.
He was known for his gruff, even surly, coaching style. But still, players loved him.
"He definitely was the best coach I had in my career," former goaltender Felix Potvin, who played for Burns in Toronto, said. "He was hard, but honest."
TSN's Bob McKenzie said Burns was beloved by both players and fans.
"I think what you are going to see in the wake of his death is the unbelievable outpouring of emotion and feeling for the man for the kind of guy he was," he told CTV News Channel. "(He coached) with a lot of flair and a lot of colour, and the fans identified with him.
"He was very fiery, very competitive."
In 1,019 games, Burns won 501 games, lost 353, tied 151 and lost 14 in overtime. In the playoffs, he won 78 in 149 games.
He is survived by his wife, a son, and a daughter.