Burns got into a fight he couldn't win

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:51 PM ET

Pat Burns finally got into a fight he couldn't win.

The three-time NHL coach of the year, who started out as a young cop taming boozy brawlers on the streets of the Gatineau, Que., bar scene, has lost his battle with cancer after going three rounds with the killer.

Burns, who turned 58 April 4, had turned down chemotherapy treatments for his lung cancer, which was diagnosed in 2008, after battling through bouts of colon cancer and cancer of the liver. The colon cancer was diagnosed in 2004, a year after Burns had won the Stanley Cup behind the bench of the New Jersey Devils.

It was a pinnacle achievement in a remarkable, unlikely, colourful 14-year NHL career which saw Burns coach the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and the Devils, ringing up a record of 501-350-175.

Not a bad second career.

A career worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame - although, inexplicably, he was excluded from this year's class, an error in judgment by the selection committee for which it has been rightly scorned.

Burns started out as a cop in Gatineau, Que., when he was 19. In those days, the Hull bar scene - which was still open for a couple of hours after last call across the river in Ottawa - could get wild in the wee hours, booze and blood mixing in the streets.

Burns got $40 a week and a couple of dozen shirts to keep the peace.

I remember him telling me the story in a hotel lobby somewhere along the line when he was the coach of the Habs and I was starting out on the NHL beat.

Two dozen shirts seemed like a lot, until his first night on the job. He got called to break up a fight, took a punch in the head and had the shirt ripped right off his back.

He worked his way up the ranks, working undercover in narcotics, taking on bikers and other brawlers, head-first into some of the toughest, slimiest situations you could imagine.

He once had his hands full with a woman armed with a turkey. He was called to a domestic dispute during the holidays and while he was subduing the husband -- a little too roughly as far as the wife was concerned, apparently -- she hit him over the head with the frozen turkey.

When his team ran into a tough situation, Burns often would relate a story of a life and death situation he had come up against in a strip club or somewhere working undercover, to put things in perspective.

I think that's one of the reasons he was successful as a coach. It wasn't life or death to him; he knew what that really was. When he was a rookie coach with the Habs and the team got off to a slow start, he challenged the players.

"I threw the keys to my suite on the table and told (captain) Bob Gainey to have a team meeting and have the players decide if they wanted to have me as coach," Burns said.

They did and the Habs went to the Stanley Cup final that season, losing to the Calgary Flames.

While he was working as a cop in Gatineau, he also started rising through the ranks as a coach. He got attention coaching the midget Gatineau Ambassadors. When Charlie Henry took over what were then the Hull Olympiques for new owner Wayne Gretzky in the early 1980s, Burns was picked to be the coach.

Henry arranged for a two-year leave of absence with the police department.

"He was what we wanted as a coach, being a policeman," Henry said. "He was straight-forward and disciplined. With Wayne coming in, we couldn't have a soft guy. It had been a pretty loose organization. There weren't going to be any more initiations and when you walked into a room, you took your hat off. He was our guy."

Burns was a players' coach, earning their respect with that straight-ahead approach.

He could be demanding, gruff and sarcastic but gave respect where it was earned.

From $40 a week and a dozen uniform shirts to his name on the Stanley Cup.

It was an improbable trip cut too short.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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