MONTREAL – The good Lord must surely be a hockey fan, for if He were going to take coach Pat Burns from us, He knew it would be fitting to do so only before a Toronto-Montreal game. Indeed, Burns succumbed to lung cancer in Quebec on Friday night, less than 24 hours before the Leafs and Habs took to the ice at the Bell Centre, appropriate opponents because Burns had many of his greatest memories with the NHL’s two most important teams.Video: Montreal's tribute to Pat Burns
Players from both teams wore a black patch with the initials "PB" on their helmets, and a lengthy video appreciation of his career was followed by a moment of silence in his memory before the game was played. The home side won an entertaining contest, 2-0.
Burns, a former undercover police officer, had earlier battled colon and liver cancer, but when doctors discovered a third, incurable cancer in his lungs a year ago, he knew his time on Earth was limited.
Burns left the game with 501 coaching victories to his credit and more than 1,000 games behind the bench, among the all-time leaders in both categories. His final career record was 501-350-161-14 in 1,019 games. He coached three Original Six teams—Montreal, Toronto, and Boston--but won his only Stanley Cup as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 2003. He has the distinction of being the only NHL coach to win the Jack Adams Award three times, with three different teams, no less.
A gruff man on the outside, Burns was a lovable and loyal friend to those around him and to the game of hockey itself. He got into coaching part time while working as an undercover police officer and was later hired by Wayne Gretzky to coach his Hull Olympiques team in 1983.
Burns moved his way up the ranks and was an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 1987 World U20 (Junior) Championship before moving to Sherbrooke of the AHL later that year and then with the Canadiens the next year. As a rookie head coach in the NHL, he took the Habs to the Cup finals before losing to Calgary.
Burns moved on to Toronto in 1992 where he took the team to consecutive Conference finals appearances in ’93 and ‘94, and he later coached the Bruins as well. He was hired by Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey in 2002 and remained head coach for three years, winning a Cup before having to step down because of illness three years later.
Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman later hired Burns to work as an assistant coach for the 2008 World Championship, a gesture of fraternity that the hockey world will never forget. Burns’s last public appearance came this past April when he participated in the dedication of a new hockey rink in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to be called the Pat Burns Arena.
He passed away in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on November 19, 2010. Gone but never forgotten.