clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Remembering Pat Burns

Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach and all-around great man Pat Burns passed away tonight. We knew it was coming when it was announced that his cancer had become terminal but it was no less jarring to see it as I drove by the AM640 billboard on the Gardiner. His passing has been met with a range of emotions as fans of the teams that he coached remembered the impact that he had on their franchises while the players and people that covered his career lament the passing of one of the games truest bastions of integrity. Bob McKenzie's piece is an incredible memory of Pat Burns. Pierre LeBrun probably captured the period that most Leafs fans hold most fondly:

A three-time Jack Adams Award winner in Montreal, Toronto and Boston, I think it's hard to argue against the fact he'll be forever remembered as the coach who brought a lunch-bucket Maple Leafs team to thrilling, back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1993 and 1994.

He was the man who came from the Montreal Canadiens and left a true blue Maple Leafs. His time behind the bench went so much further than leading a hard working team to back-to-back conference finals. His leadership was the catalyst for the team that drove the stake through the heart of the Harold Ballard Era. He gave Leafs fans back their pride in the blue and white and for that I and many, many more will be forever thankful. That he was not able to attend his own induction into the Hall of Fame is one of the greatest travesty's in the Hall's history and will forever be a stain against the voters that failed in perhaps the easiest task they will ever be given.

One of my regrets will be that I helped Godd Till compile these memories in the hopes that they would be posted to celebrate Pat Burns life before he passed and that he would be able to enjoy the fans' adoration while still with us. It is a small silver lining to know that the farce that was the premature announcement of his death will have the silver lining that those that might not have told Burns otherwise were able to share their love for him while he could still appreciate the sentiments.


After reading the collected remembrances below please share your favourite memories of Pat Burns.

One of my favorite Pat Burns memories is the time he flexed and challenged Ron Wilson from the bench. The B's were playing the Caps. I was a probably a sophomore in high school at the time and me and few of my buddies had tickets to the game up on the balcony. Things started to get a little chippy on the ice. Craig Berube tried to start a fight with Don Sweeney, which sparked a 6 on 6 brawl with Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig going at it. Ron Wilson and Pat Burns started chirping at each other and Burns just smiles at Ron Wilson and flexes his bicep. Pat Burns is a true fighter. Whether he is fighting crime, fellow coaches, or cancer, Pat Burns doesn't back down.

- Evan, Stanley Cup of Chowder

I don't believe the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever employ another coach who will leave his mark on the team, the fans, and the city the way Pat Burns did. Only 281 regular season games. Two magical seasons, a disappointing lock-out shortened campaign, followed by his dismissal as his sputtering team was hitting the stretch run. But two immaculate playoff journeys. Ones we'll never forget. Ones synonymous with success, and ones that defined Burns's time in Toronto.

Burns was a blue collar guy. The type of guy Toronto falls in love with, three times over. When you think of Pat Burns, you think of Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and Dave Andreychuk. You think of Bob Rouse, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, and Todd Gill. You think of heart. You think of "The Passion Returns." And return it did, with Burns playing an influential part.

Three moments have stuck with me, all these years later:

1. Burns's return to Montreal. Having come to Toronto via the hated Canadiens, it was no secret he wanted to stick it to his former team. He wanted that game, bad. Everyone knew it. And his players went out and won it for him. I even remember the score: 5-4 Toronto, with the Leafs holding on for the road victory. And there was Burns on the bench, swinging his arm around, in what might have been an early interpretation of the fist pump. Pat Burns: ahead of his time.

2. Burns leaving the Toronto bench in the playoffs against Los Angeles, heading across to the visitors' side to, well, likely end the life of Barry Melrose. Who totally had it coming. Passion.

3. After game seven against Los Angeles came to an end, and the teams had shaken hands, there was Burns at the Maple Leafs bench, applauding his players as they left the ice for the final time. Twenty-one grueling playoff games. Three game sevens. A coach proud in defeat. I'll never forget the ass-tap Burns gave Gilmour as #93 stepped off the ice, ending a season the likes of which we'll never see again.

I hate the New Jersey Devils, but I'm glad Pat Burns won the Stanley Cup. He deserved it. Yet I remember reading a few years back that you won't find a picture of his Devils championship team on his mantle. Instead, you'll find the photograph of the 1992/1993 Leafs. Because, as Burns put it, that team was "special."

And that, kids, is why Pat Burns is a hero.

Until the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime - and I'm beginning to realize this may never, ever happen - every coach who takes residence behind the bench will be compared to Burns. Because when he was back there, it was the closest the Leafs have ever come.

- Eyebleaf, Sports and the City

Pat Burns: An appreciation that matured as I did

I was 15 years old when Pat Burns became coach of the Montreal Canadiens.  At 15, I devoured everything I could about hockey and the Habs, but the news that the new coach was a former cop from Gatineau didn't really resonate like it would in today's 24 hour-internet-blog-twitter-Sportscentre world.  At 15 years old and living two hours north of Toronto in 1988-89, the coach of the Montreal Canadiens made very little difference in the grand scheme of things. 

Until I saw the team play.  And win.  A lot.  Burns, Patrick Roy, Chris Chelios, Mats Naslund and the rest had a phenomenal year that got them to the Cup final against a loaded Calgary team.  The combination of Burns' coaching and an All-Star goalie and defender like Roy and Chelios?  Fate.  All it needed was some traditional Canadiens firewagon offense and this team was off to the races. 

It never happened.  The Habs were always good through Burns' tenure, but never great.  Even worse?  They weren't fun to watch.  I thought they were boring and the antithesis of the great Habs of the 70's I first fell in love with, and of the legendary Rocket and Beliveau lead teams my Dad spoke so lovingly of.  When Burns left the Habs for Toronto, there was a sense of relief that the Canadiens would get back to being the team I loved to watch, not just the team I loved.

It didn't exactly work out that way.  The Canadiens loosened the offensive reigns, but didn't return to the glory years.  However, Burns and Toronto were a perfect match, as the Leaf's traditional work ethic and grit married to Pat's hard as nails approach and defensive acumen (with a healthy dose of a dominating Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, among others) made the Leafs one of the best teams in the league.  By then, I had reached the age where the importance of coaching was much more obvious, and living in the Toronto media market meant images of a scowling Burns behind the bench or an intelligent Burns answering questions in a scrum were daily occurances.  I have been a Montreal fan all my life, but my lasting image of former Canadiens coach Pat Burns is of him threatening to tear off a smug Barry Melrose's head at the Gardens in the '93 playoffs.   Burns is a Leaf legend, and deserves to be so. 

Even after he lead the hated Leafs to new heights, or drove me crazy by moving to an even more hated rival in Boston, I liked the man.  I liked that when I moved to Montreal for law school the owners of the Old Dublin pub had his picture behind the bar.  I liked that his teams worked hard.  I liked that he was bright and engaging and funny in interviews.  I liked our shared Celtic heritage and that he finally won a Cup (even though I didn't like the Devils).  I like that Burns' likeability transcends the sometimes bitter rivalry Canadiens fans have with Leafs and Bruins fans.  That we all agree on the greatness of Pat Burns the coach and person speaks for itself. 

I wish 15 year old me had realized how good a coach Pat Burns was.  I know 36 year old me does.

- HF10, Four Habs Fans

My favourite memory of Pat Burns as a Leaf was also my first, and it's one of those sports fan moments that's stuck with me with an unusual clarity over the years.

The background: It's the 1992 offseason. The Leafs have just finished their first season under Cliff Fletcher, and it wasn't a good one. Sure, there was the Gilmour trade at mid-season and a decent final stretch. But the team had missed the playoffs, as usual, and were rapidly losing ground to the Blue Jays as Toronto's favourite team. They'd also fired coach Tom Watt, and now Fletcher is searching for a replacement.

Now it will sound strange to younger fans, but back in the pre-Internet days it was actually possible to go an entire day without knowing that something important had happened. And that day, I can remember sitting at the top of the stairs when my dad came home, walked through the door, and immediately asked if I'd heard about the Leafs' new coach.

I hadn't, and I wasn't sure I was going to like what came next. The rumour mill had been focused on candidates like Dave King and others, none of whom I was all that excited about. There were even wild rumours of an offer to Don Cherry. I gritted my teeth and waited to hear who'd be the latest coach to get fed to the wolves in Toronto.

"Pat Burns," said my dad.

There aren't many moments as a fan when you can pinpoint the exact second that everything changes. This was one of them. Pat Burns? The hard-ass cop from Montreal? The guy who'd been coach of the year just a few seasons ago? The guy who always looked like he was going to reach over and yank out someone's throat? He wasn't even on the radar. He was still coaching the Habs, wasn't he?

Apparently not. Fletcher had managed to extract him, and he'd been introduced as coach that afternoon. The sad sack Leafs, the perennial basement dwellers, the permanent laughingstock, had just hired the best coach in the league. Good lord, this Fletcher guy wasn't messing around.

The rest was history. Burns turned the Leafs around within half a season. They embraced his system, Gilmour became the best two-way player in the league, and a mostly no-name blue line gelled into something spectacular. There were two long playoff runs, a ten-game win streak, and - fleetingly, amazingly - status as the odds-on Cup favourites.

They never won that Cup, and the players eventually tuned Burns out. But those teams will live forever for a generation of Leaf fans, and they set the stage for Pat Quinn era and beyond. The Leafs would be bad again, maybe even a laughingstock, but never again a team you could just dismiss as irrelevant. A new era had arrived - one where the Toronto Maple Leafs mattered again.

And you can trace it all back to that summer day in 1992 when Cliff Fletcher got his man. Everything changed that day.

Thanks, coach.

- DGB, Down Goes Brown


It was a strange sight. Stranger than seeing a New Jersey Devils team that seemed a few years past its expiration date as a Stanley Cup champion capture a third chalice in eight years. Stranger than seeing the vanquished opponent’s goaltender skate away with the MVP. Stranger than seeing Oleg Tverdovsky win the first of two rings.
The sight was of Pat Burns, hoisting the Cup above his head and smiling. Grinning. Baring teeth in a joyous rather than a furious manner. The antithesis of the insufferable grump he was supposed to be. 
He was an ex-cop hired to play bad cop for the Devils; an old-school coach no one else wanted behind their bench until an old school general manager decided he’s what the Devils needed.
He played the role well, motivating the veterans and scaring the everloving shit out of the younger players. He pushed the right buttons: Inserting Mike Rupp in the Finals for an injured Joe Nieuwendyk, playing Ken Daneyko for the first time against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in a climactic Game 7.
Jacques Lemaire led the Devils to the 1995 Cup with a strangling defensive system that propelled them through the postseason tournament. Larry Robinson led them to the 2000 Cup by being a players’ advocate and allowing what as arguably the most talented team in franchise history to excel.
Burns? He was a three-time Jack Adams nominated kick-in-the-backside this collection needed to squeeze one more championship out of them.
"Pat just kept the pedal to the metal all season," Daneyko told the AP after the Devils’ Game 7 victory. "That was probably what was missing from the club in the past few years. He came in and was a no-nonsense guy. ... He's one of the tougher coaches I've ever played for, but it's well worth it."
Seven years later, he’s still tougher than most of the coaches in this League.

- Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy

Take me to the logical starting point...

On June 1, 1988, Pat Burns was named head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. He was 36 years old, and many fans had never heard of him at all.

Not everyone now remembers the time before the Senators returned to Ottawa. In those years, Ottawa was a hotbed of junior hockey, one of the best junior hockey cities in the country (yes, even including the West). With two major junior teams in two leagues and several thriving Tier II teams, the wintertime Citizen was packed with junior hockey talk and sometimes not much else.

This is where Pat Burns learned his trade, as coach of the Hull Olympiques in the Q, bringing along players like Lucky Luc Robitaille, Stephane Matteau, and Benoit Brunet; very nearly winning the 1986 Memorial Cup but losing the final to Guelph. And it was in those copies of the Citizen, read on March Breaks and Christmas vacations with my mom in Ottawa, that I first became aware of Pat Burns.

After leaving Hull, Burns went to Sherbrooke for a year to coach the AHL Canadiens, no doubt helped by the fact that he was basically a local (Stanstead, the town where Burns is from and Magog, where he lives today, form a tight little triangle with Sherbrooke, which is about 40 minutes up Autoroute 55 from Stanstead).

Less than a year later, he was appointed to the most uncompromising job in hockey, bar Viktor Tikhonov’s. To call it a meteoric rise is to laughably underestimate the situation. Burns was 36 years old. Few thought he was ready.

Thankfully there was a distraction. Everyone wanted to talk about one thing. Pat Burns was a former cop.

Former cop became, immediately, one of the touchstone tropes in Canadian sportswriting. It would endure. For fifteen years. Pat Burns, former Gatineau cop. It was how he was defined. And he looked the part, and fit the part, and played the part, in both official languages. He had that cop’s spreading middle, from riding in a cop car, meals on the run, late-night paperwork. He had a cop’s direct way of talking. He had a dramatic and luxuriant cop moustache, except when he didn’t, and when he didn’t you remembered his upper lip as the place that moustache used to be. He had a cop’s incipient jowls. He had a cop’s focus on security. He had an 80s cop’s high, brushed-back hair, receding notably but not ridiculously at the temples. He had a cop’s hair-trigger temper. He had a cop’s charm-you smile. He had a cop’s Irish name, and a cop’s Irish face, like a red fist when he was chewing out a referee.

If he hadn’t shown up on La Soiree du Hockey as the head coach of the Canadiens, you’d have utterly believed him on Lance et Compte and He Shoots, He Scores as a wearied but bulldog detective investigating one of Pierre Lambert’s teammates mixed up in a gently scary drug operation with two brown-skinned, jheri-curled Colombians.

And it would have worked. Because, oddly unlike how these things work in the real world, Pat Burns really was a cop. Gatineau at the time, and today, is a suburb but also a bit of a party town - home to some rough bars and a few rough customers, but mostly a lot of teenagers coming over the river to drink. Burns’s handling of teenaged junior hockey players was probably not a lot different from his handling of teenaged weekend revelers.

In other words, he wasn’t acting. This guy was for real.

He commanded authority, instead of demanding it

Pat Burns’s stereotypical cop body has been obliterated by cancer. Liver cancer. Bowel cancer. Now, lung cancer. Last week, I saw a recent press photo at the opening of the Pat Burns Arena in Stanstead. It showed Fuck-You-Come-Here-And-Say-That Pat Burns with the face of a bird - with a bird’s narrow, suspicious head and a bird’s infinitely sad round eyes.

Fuck, Pat, what has happened to you?

I am not going to talk about his courage, not going to talk about his indomitability, not going to talk about fight and pain tolerance and hockey and toughness and fight. I am not keen to address the issue of mortality at all. Pat Burns became the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens at 36. Today, I am 37. Soon, no doubt sooner than I imagine, I will be 38.

This makes me feel bad. Because Pat Burns, we all know, is dying. And I don’t want to die.

What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about hockey

I knew Pat Burns was a former cop when he was appointed, because it came up all the time when he coached the Olympiques as well (in addition to the always-insisted-on fact of his impeccable bilingualism). What I didn’t appreciate, but would come to understand very soon, was that there was a strict implication from that.

It meant that Pat Burns was working-class.

Middle class people, I already had a sense, did not become cops. They don’t. They didn’t, they don’t, they probably won’t, although what "middle class" will mean in 20 years, Lord only knows. Cop work - with its danger, its boredom, its hours and its spirit-sapping bath in the spleen of the underclass - is inherently upwardly mobile. It feeds aspirations. It is one of the bridges (once plentiful in Canada, now painfully few) for the sons and daughters of the working class to reach the middle.

We love to talk about hockey in Canada. We hate talking about class. That, no doubt, is part of what many have identified in Canada as our "middle class standard", what has proved so successful at creating our comfortable, genteel, pleasurable society. Middle class people don’t talk about class, so we as a people don’t talk about it much. But hockey is one of those areas that pervades Canadian culture from side to side and top to bottom, and so you can use it like a lens to see class in our culture, clear as day.

And Pat Burns was a working-class coach.

So now, because we don’t talk about it, I have to talk about class and hockey. What’s a working-class coach? Roughly speaking, she or he believes in three things.

You build everything from the bottom up, from your goalmouth out. A team, a roster, a game, a plan, a set of skills.

Everybody has to pull their own weight.

You don’t faff around trying to make a moose into a swan. Let swans be swans.

None of this gets into technique, tactics, or even much into strategy. It doesn’t get into the details of hockey. On those, every coach is different, and everything we once knew seems to be wrong anyway. A working-class approach is predicated on two principles - the deck is always stacked against you, and there is (literally) no time to lose.

Working class means not having meaningful second chances. It means having to produce now, because you don't have a fallback. It means playing junior a thousand miles from home and trying to get enough high school in just to stay eligible. It means playing a whole camp and asking for just a Red Wings jacket because it doesn't occur to you that you might be worth more. And then not even getting the jacket.

Working class hockey was long the backbone of the country's hockey greatness. It meant names like Esposito, Mikita, Gretzky, Lafleur, Richard, Morenz. Names that, no matter how famous, would always bear the stamp of hyphenated Canadians. Working class doesn't just mean lunch bucket players although it means lunch bucket moms and dads. But it does mean being grateful for what you have and coming to the rink early and being willing to fight like hell for whatever you got from the game. It's Gzowski's description of Gretzky alone on a rink until the caretaker gives the third final warning and the lights turn off. It's Dryden's description of Lafleur flipping the same lights on himself and skating circles in the unsteady gloaming of warming floods, the concrete walls blasting back the puckthud against unsprung boards.

Of course, it means something else too. It means Stan Jonathan, Rejean Houle, George Armstrong, Wendel Clark. Heart and soul guy. Energy guy. Tough nosed guy. Pat Burns guy.

We like to tell ourselves a bit of a lie about success in our lives, that success comes from hard work, responsibility, teamwork, grit. And we tell ourselves that the successful people in our lives, the middle classes, those who enjoy the fruits of prosperity, exemplify those values.

Of course they don't, or don't always. What they share is opportunities; sometimes one that has been grabbed onto greedily and clung to desperately, like a sixth defenseman spot or a job on the force; more often the endless stream of opportunities that come to the connected, the educated, the well-spoken, those of fortunate birth or circumstsance.

In hockey, though, those public virtues are much closer to the mark of success. Not always, but surprisingly often. They are the Pat Burns virtues, those that a hockey team with just enough talent but enough collective will can grab for themselves, as a way out of the competitive hurly-burly. Hard work, responsibility, teamwork, grit. Call them, for want of a better word, the Doug Gilmour values. And it is no surprise that Doug Gilmour went from being a very good hockey player to being a national symbol of public virtue, while playing hockey for Pat Burns.

We don't necessarily share those values, we don't even necessarily privilege them. But we do celebrate them. And if you are working-class, they are a way out.

What he did

Pat Burns took a good hockey team and made them instantly into a great hockey team. He did it with conscious eyes on those public virtues that lift a team, and so leveraged a superstar goaltender. I don't think I want to say any more than that. He stood up for personal responsibility, and protected his men. And he was smarter than the guys he stood next to.

Montreal's distant hockey past rings loud with the upper-class, middle-class, amateur spirit, but the Canadiens specifically are the working man's team. Mental toughness and professionalism. That line again, of working-class heroes. Morenz. Richard. Lafleur. That is Burns's line. It was also Scotty Bowman's, another working class Quebecker. That line, hard work and the indomitable desire to presevere, made flesh, becomes the will to survive. The will to push through. The will to keep the puck from going in your net.

Pat Burns took that first Canadiens team by the scruff of the neck and led them to 115 points. Except for Tom Johnson in Espo’s 76-goal season, no one had done that before as a rookie coach. Only Todd McLellan - wind-aided through "overtime loss" inflation - has done it since. They lost an epic Stanley Cup final to a brilliant Calgary Flames team. And, bizarrely, management began to slowly pick the team apart.

The end is only the beginning, except when the story stays the same

Burns’s tenure in Montreal, shot through with success but not Cups, didn’t end in triumph. The Canadiens took a shellacking in the press for their second-round playoff exit in 1992 after gritting their way to 93 points and an Adams Division championship. Many of the young players on a shockingly young team, including John Leclair and Mathieu Schneider, had been cruelly exposed in a whitewash by the Bruins.

On May 31, 1992, Pat Burns resigned as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. A combative press conference followed in which members of the local media levelled the accusation that Burns’s resignation had been forced. Pat Burns fired back "prove it". He remained, to the end, his own man, and damned sure he wanted you to know it. He was 40 years old, and in what many saw as a betrayal he was headed to Toronto to take over as the head coach of the Leafs, a town with an even more ambivalent relationship to working-class hockey but a team that was crying out for the discipline and good sense that Burns would bring to them.

Jacques Demers would take the Habs players that Burns had so painstakingly built from youths and win the Stanley Cup with them, improbably and rather wonderfully, the next year. Having flown that team to the sun, he would then sink it under the waves, laden with hubris, wax and feathers.

It is Burns’s place, sandwiched between two other francophone coaches with Stanley Cups on their resumes, in the long, cold shadow of Scotty Bowman, that denies him some part of the recognition that he is due as the last coach to preside over a Canadiens team of enduring quality. The style may also be a factor; a Burns team never was dull to watch (not even in New Jersey, amazingly) but Burns’s Habs were in no way the firewagon teams of Scotty Bowman, or even of Bob Berry, or the pint-sized sprites of Demers.

I’ll let others talk about what Burns went on to do elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, until cancer started to eat him from the inside six years ago, Pat Burns’s reputation in Montreal and in Quebec slumbered.

"I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

Another comfortable lie we tell ourselves is that cancer is no respecter of class or race or creed. This isn't quite right; our whole society swings into action against cancer for you if you have the right speech, birth and income. And of course the dirty cancerous jobs, the dirty cancerous neighborhoods, and the dirty cancerous lifestyles follow the working class around like a malignant web of unsloughable tissue. But one thing remains, in the final analysis, both universal and unshakeably true. Cancer kills you dead, no matter how lucky you have otherwise been. Dead, indeed, is fucking dead.

Pat Burns and I don't share much except a love of the frenzied tussle of a 2-1 hockey game. But I respect the man as a hockey coach, and I feel close to him because he led my favorite team when my passion was at its height, my first years in Montreal, lining up to pay $10 and stand in a cloud of Craven 'A' in the concourse of the old Forum. Let's just say we breathed some of the same smoke, moments I am grateful for.

So yeah, I grew up (hockeywise) with the man, and to see him like this and say Fuck, Pat, what has happened to you? gives me chills. It makes me sad, but mostly it's an intimation of mortality I could do without. I don't want him not to die because I love the guy; I don't want him to die because I still want to pretend that I share something with him. And if he gets cancer and dies, the fear makes me want to cut the tie loose.

Pat Burns says he hopes that some promising young player can take his first steps to greatness in the new arena that bears his name, in that working-class, hanging-on border-country town, Stanstead. I hope so too. As a country, we need those towns. We need those rinks. We need those players. And we still need Pat Burns.

- Nats Maslund, Tiny Chunks of Empire