Legendary NHL coach Pat Burns dies at 58

pat-burns-dead-58It’s perhaps fitting that Pat Burns, possessor of one fantastically non-ironic mustache, would lose his seven-year long battle with cancer in the month nicknamed Movember. Nevertheless, the hockey world is mourning the loss of a legendary figure behind the bench, a three-time Jack Adams trophy winner for Coach of the Year, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Burns was under contract to a different team each time he hoisted that piece of hardware.

Burns’ mustache was perhaps a legacy of his original career as a policeman in the town in which he grew up, Gatineau, Quebec. Burns became a cop after his boyhood dreams of playing professional hockey were checked hard into the boards by the realization that his play-making skills weren’t up to snuff. But the lure of the rink proved strong, and Burns ended up coaching minor hockey, demonstrating a capability behind the bench that far surpassed his on-ice talents.

Despite his success at coaching, Burns almost gave it up to return to full-time policing, only to be talked out of it by none other than Wayne Gretzky, who owned the major-junior team Burns was then helming. Gretzky told Burns that he was destined to coach in the NHL someday, and the Great One’s psychic abilities were proven correct when Burns took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens just two years later.

Though Burns claimed to have been shaking with nerves the first time he entered the dressing room of the team he grew up watching on TV, he got over it fast. In his first season, Burns took Les Habs to the Stanley Cup final, going the distance but ultimately losing to the Calgary Flames in seven games.

After four years in Montreal, Burns went to Canada’s other iconic team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, where once again his mere presence had an immediate effect. A team that had been a league laughingstock suddenly morphed into a Cup contender, falling just one game short of making the Finals. Ironically, the Los Angeles Kings player who ended the Leafs miracle season was none other than Wayne Gretzky.

On an apparent mission to coach all Original Six teams, Burns left Toronto and ended up in Boston. While his time with the Bruins wasn’t spectacular, his next stop in New Jersey made up for it. In his first season behind the Devils’ bench, Burns finally hoisted Lord Stanley’s trophy. For any Canadian kid, this would represent the pinnacle of achievement, and a comedown would be inevitable. But for Burns, the toll would be more than emotional.

The year after his Stanley Cup triumph, Burns announced he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. Though he fought the disease with his trademark tenacity, the cancer spread to his liver, then finally, to his lungs. The once burly policeman was reduced to a frail shell, prompting rumors of his death to hit the internet in September of this year. In response, Burns went on TSN, Canada’s sports network, and delivered a classic denial. “I’m not dead… far fucking from it.”

But now it’s not a rumor. Pat Burns is gone and the hockey world is a poorer place without him. Before he died, he remarked that despite his illness, he continued to go to rinks near his home in Tampa Bay. “There was something about before a hockey game — that electricity that existed — that I really, really miss and probably that’s why I like going to games because I can feel some of it, anyway.”

It’s fitting that on the first Saturday following Burns’ death, the two Canadian teams he coached will face off at the Bell Centre in Montreal. No doubt everyone in attendance will be able to feel a little extra electricity in the air. Thanks for the memories, Pat.