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Original Issue

Working Man

Pat Burns (1952--2010): Hockey's regular guy and exceptional coach

Pat Burns and I didn't hit it off right away. Figuring that nobody knows a cop better than his partner, I called Burns's ex on the Gatineau, Que., police force on the June day in 1988 that the Canadiens gave Burns his first NHL job. The officer regaled me with tales about what a tough cop Burns had been, all of which outraged the coach when he read the column in the Montreal Gazette. "Listen, I put away a lot of bad guys. Some of them can even read," he spat when I arrived at the Forum for an interview. "At some point these guys'll get out and come looking to get me." Eventually I calmed him down and we went for a stroll past his childhood home in the blue-collar district of St. Henri, 15 minutes from the arena. Among the remarkable things he said that morning was that now the most storied team in hockey had "Joe Blow" as its coach.

Burns truly was a regular guy who just happened to be an exceptional coach. His teams won 501 regular-season games. He was the only coach to win the Jack Adams Award, three times—he did it with three different teams—and won a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils, the organization that best reflected his conservative approach. Bruins president Harry Sinden once told Burns, then coaching Boston, "Pat, some coaches use a 1-2-2 [forecheck system]. Some use a 1--4. You've invented a new one. The 0--5."

Burns revered his third-line grinders, probably because he saw himself in them. He valued work. On the day before an elimination game in Montreal, he canceled practice, put the Canadiens on a bus and had it tour the city's blue-collar sections. He told his players, "It might not matter much to you whether you win tomorrow, but it means the world to these people. You owe them an effort."

The bad guys Burns suspected of knowing how to read never could get to him. After a six-year battle, cancer did. He died last Friday, at age 58.


The University of Maryland has started a club team whose mission is to "encourage and facilitate the involvement of as many people as possible in competitive eating."



COPPING THE CUP A former detective, Burns won 501 regular-season games and led the Devils to a title.