Remembering Burnsie

Pat Burns smiles as he is introduced as the new head coach of the Boston Bruins on May 21, 1997....

Pat Burns smiles as he is introduced as the new head coach of the Boston Bruins on May 21, 1997. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:34 PM ET

Pat Burns loved a good story, the rumble of a Harley, hockey, and women.

Lots of stories. Lots of hockey, lots of motorbikes and lots of ... ah, well let’s just say, “he lived a full life,” says Bill Watters, fellow raconteur, boss and colleague of the former coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Burns died on Friday at age 58 of colon and lung cancer. Renowned for his tenacity and pugnacious style behind the bench, those same qualities helped him survive two previous battles with cancer in 2004 and ’05.

That pertinacity also made him the best, or at least most successful, coach the Leafs have had in the past two decades. He cajoled, intimidated and baby-sat a team that included Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Todd Gill and lesser heroes of the day twice to within a whisker of the Stanley Cup final.

“He was the best coach I ever had,” says Gill, who spent 20 seasons in the NHL. Today Gill, as coach and owner of the Brockville Braves junior A club, utilizes many of Burns’ methods. The man may have died but his ideas and his legacy live on. A rink in the hamlet of Stanstead in Quebec’s Eastern Townships is being named after him and a Facebook campaign this spring to get him into the Hall of Fame before his death collected more than 10,000 signatures in less than five days. It is only a matter of time before he becomes enshrined among hockey’s all-time greats.

He was a man of all seasons — brusque when he had to be, yet lovable and funny when he wanted to be. He regarded his wife and his children with affection, and at that arena announcement he spoke with a tenderness he rarely showed during his very public vocation.

“As your life gets closer to the end, you realize that your body gets weaker, your mind gets working hard, but your heart gets softer. As you get closer to family, you get closer to God, there are things you realize along the way and all the great people you’ve worked with,” he told friends and a community that, in his heart, he never really left.

But, in Toronto, the springtimes of 1993 and ’94 still reasonate with Leafs fans as the best of times, and much of the credit belongs to Burns. He took over a disheartened collection of players who had won just 30 games and missed the 1991-92 playoffs under Tom Watt.

“I remember his first practice,” says Watters, then the team’s assistant general manager under Cliff Fletcher. “We had some bad practice habits and we were a soft team. We were scrimmaging and Pat blew the whistle and called everyone to the side. He put one foot on the boards like he was going to say something nice and friendly. And, he annihilated them verbally. From then on, guys were going to do things his way. The team he inherited had not been that good. They needed a sterner hand.”

Nobody could do stern better than Burns.

“If you were afraid of him, he could run you into the ground,” says Watters.

He came with a reputation of never taking any prisoners, a former cop who’d worked the harder side of the streets in Quebec. He was the master intimidator. He rode a Harley. He was even linked at one time with a Hell’s Angels member. Burns denied knowing that the guy with him in the picture was a motor cycle gangster but if anything it just honed his “bad-boy” image.

“He demanded everything from his players and you knew that just by his demeanor,” says Gilmour, who would have his two best seasons under Burns. “He’d make sure you were prepared to play and if you weren’t he’d let you know; and he could do it just with a stare. I remember times when I didn’t play well and the next day he’d just look at me. He didn’t have to say much. He had personality-plus.”

Gilmour, who scored 238 points for the Leafs in 1993 and ’94, and some of the credit for that certainly belongs to Burns.

“It all started with Pat,” he said. “I don’t really understand what it was about him, but he’d just stare and I knew he was saying I had to be better.”

Even the Leafs’ public relations department perpetuated the tough-guy image. A promo poster of the time shows Burns and his team all dressed up as 1950s “greasers” hanging out at a down-and-dirty garage. Bad boys.

But, behind the toughness, there could also be compassion. It just wasn’t part of his public personna, which was all about building a team and moulding boys into men.

Gill was drafted 25th overall by the Leafs in 1984 but it wasn’t until Burns arrived that he learned what being a defencman in the NHL was about.

“He believed in me and while he was tough he made me a better player,” Gill said. “He taught me there’s two ends of the ice and that I was a defenceman first.”

The nights Gill forgot, Burns was quick to remind him.

“He had a good feel of who was going to play well,” he said. “He’d give you one or two shifts and if he didn’t like what he was seeing you’d sit the rest of the period. But with Pat, he’d always give you a second chance and the second period he’d throw you back out there. He’d always give you a chance to prove him wrong.”

It is no coincidence that like Gilmour, Gill would have his best season under Burns in 1992-93.

“He believed in his players and his players believed in him. In 20 years that was the closest group of guys I ever played with,” said Gill.

That first season, Burns would take the Leafs to the Conference final.

“My favourite memory was Pat taking the Leafs all the way to the semifinals, but he didn’t win the Stanley Cup,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a life-long Leafs’ fan recalled at the Stanstead ceremony, then got a chuckle from Burns when he added: “Which goes to show that, with the Maple Leafs organization, a great coach can take a team a long way, but only God can work miracles.”

Many believe that is the year Toronto should have won the Stanley Cup. Toronto won 40 games, then beat Detroit and St. Louis in the playoffs and were one game from eliminating Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. But referee Kerry Fraser missed a call on Gretzky for a high stick that bloodied Gilmour. Moments later, Gretzky scored the game winner.

The Kings went on to win Game 7 in Toronto; then lost to the Canadiens in the final.

“We knew if we got by Los Angeles there was no way Montreal was going to beat us. Burns’ presence would’ve won that series,” says Watters. “That was our Stanley Cup year because (Burns) would’ve out-coached (Montreal’s) Jacques Demers. I know Burns didn’t think Jacques was a dummy; he just knew that he was a better coach.”

A few other people must’ve thought so, too. Burns was voted the winner of the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.

That Leafs team holds a special place in the hearts of fans, and to be honest it holds a special place in the hearts of the players.

“Let’s put it this way,” says Gilmour, “when the ’93 season was over, we all got together for lunch and we were still together at midnight and Burns was still with us. A lot of times you separate yourself as a coach from the team but he wanted to be part of it. That was the bond we had. That’s rarer than people might think. A lot of times as soon as the season ends, everyone goes their own way. That team and Pat had a lot of mutual respect for each other.”

Fletcher says he knew he’d landed the right man for the job when he hired Burns.

“Hiring him 18 years ago was easily my best decision in hockey, and we developed a great friendship that I will always treasure,” Fletcher says. He had a gruff exterior, but he was one of the softest guys you would ever want to meet. He had great compassion. He certainly brought respectability back to the Maple Leafs in the early ’90s in an awful hurry.

“I’ll never forget (hiring him). I was down in Florida, I got the phone call that Pat might be available and it took me all of 30 seconds to get the wheels in motion to make sure he ended up in Toronto. It was just his track record, he was coaching the most storied franchise in the NHL as far as Cups go and he was used to dealing with all the attention. I just thought he was the right man for the job.”

Burns wouldn’t win his Stanley Cup until 2003 with New Jersey but he did get the Leafs back to the Conference final in 1993-94. They’ve never been closer since.

But, it took a while even for the Leafs to figure out the complexities of his personality. Gill recalls one afternoon with the team in Minnesota.

“I think it was Mike Foligno, Dave Andreychuk and me,” he says. “We’re walking down the hallway of this hotel and we thought Bill Berg was following us so when we went into the room we stuck a couple glasses of ice water on top of the door.

“We waited. But Bill never showed. Instead, the door opens, the glasses tip and there’s Pat, completely soaked. We’re sitting there with our jaws dropping on the floor. And, I’m thinking: ‘We are in so-o-o much trouble.’ He just laughed. Pat was intimidating but he knew when to turn it on and when to turn it off.”

And, so it is that Pat Burns, like James Dean, Elvis and a lot of other bad boys before him the world couldn’t help but love, has left the building. Too soon. But he left an imprint on the hockey world, his family, his friends, that will not be forgotten.

No man can do better than that.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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