Pat Burns bid farewell to the hockey world on Friday after a courageous battle with cancer. The former Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils head coach passed away at 58 in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
If poor health hadn’t forced Burns to step down from his post as Devils’ head coach in 2005, he would have been a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. A Facebook group that eventually reached over 70,000 was formed on March 26, 2010 in an attempt to get Burns inducted as fans knew that his health had taken a turn for the worst.
It would have been a kind gesture for the NHL to have made a special dispensation to include Burns in their Hall-of-Fame class of 2010. To allow him into hockey’s hallowed halls would have given a man who was well-liked by the entire hockey community a day to smile again and given him the proper send-off before his nearing defeat to cancer.
Burns was a rare breed who was beloved by both sides of the fiercest rivalry in the league of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. His “man of the people” personality gave him a special bond with fans around the NHL. The former police officer proudly represented the blue-collar, lunch pail carrying folks who followed their team day by day.
Burns never lost touch with those fans as he didn’t consider himself as anything but a regular member of society who happened to coach in the NHL. That’s what made him so beloved by everyone who followed the sport of hockey. He simply saw his role as coach as a duty to others and refused to get carried away when given praise. Anyone who studied him from behind the bench or saw his press conferences knew that the man deeply loved coaching and the thrill that came from winning.
Those who played for him instantly respected the passion and fire Burns had for the game of hockey. Burns made it his habit of rejuvenating under-performing NHL franchises his famous “kick in the backside” approach. He was always tough and demanding on his players but they always knew that Burns had their back as he would continually stick up for an embattled player in front of the media.
Martin Brodeur remembered his former coach’s input, “He was demanding, there’s no doubt about it. Not winning was not acceptable to him, and he kept us accountable. Winning a Stanley Cup was probably the highlight of his coaching career, but before he got to that he did a lot of great things in great organizations. When you go through the Montreals, the Torontos, the Bostons, you’re going through some of the great organizations. At the time that he took over the Devils, we were really successful, and I think it says a lot about the type of coach that he was.”
It was a shame that Burns had to walk away from coaching when he did because everyone knew that he had so much more to offer. When his cancer was in remission, he still kept hope that one day he would able to preside behind the bench again.
As he neared his final days, he told reporters, “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 never got that chance but his legacy to the game remains undiminished. During his 14 years coaching in the National Hockey League, Burns won 501 games and led the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup championship in 2003. He also brought the Canadiens to the finals in his first year coaching in the league.
Burns remains the only NHL coach to have been given the Jack Adams Award for “the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success” three times. Burns surely deserves a place in the Hockey’s Hall-of-Fame and hopefully one day his family and friends will be able to honor his memory with a future induction in Toronto.
Although his list of accomplishments is impressive, Burns would have preferred not to be remembered for his successes as a NHL coach but rather the effect he left on those he worked alongside and the fans he touched. He truly was a “working class hero” and will be missed deeply by the entire hockey world.
We salute you Pat, the former Irish cop who once walked the beat in Gatineau, Quebec.