Hall of a coach

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

They lived near each other in Florida, two men from Montreal, two ex-coaches still hooked on hockey. Pat Burns and Scotty Bowman would meet, ride to the rink and sit together from time to time, scouting Tampa Bay Lightning games, talking about players, strategy, style – anything but … well, you know.

“I tried to ask him questions about his condition,” Bowman said. “He never wanted to talk much about his own condition. ‘I’m OK, I’m not where I want to be, but …’ He didn’t want any … He basically didn’t want any sympathy, unfortunately. That’s the way he was.”

Burns died Friday at age 58 after battling cancer as hard as he coached in the NHL. First, he beat colon cancer. Next, he beat liver cancer. Finally, he got lung cancer.

About two months ago, a report said Burns had died. It was greatly exaggerated. Burns – who had beaten the odds before, who had gone from police officer to three-time NHL coach of the year and Stanley Cup champion – showed up at a groundbreaking for an arena to be named in his honor in Quebec.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said.

But the last time Bowman spoke to his old friend was six weeks ago. Burns stopped taking calls afterward.

“He was a fighter,” Bowman said. “He was very sick the last two months. He was very sick. It’s an awful disease. He just didn’t make it. He went through hell.”

And now we are left to wonder: How much more could Burns have won if healthy? How many more players could he have pushed to improve? How many more lives could he have touched?

Will he make the Hall of Fame?

Burns’ first cancer diagnosis came during the 2004 playoffs, a year after he had won the Cup with the New Jersey Devils. He told his players in a matter-of-fact team meeting. He told the public he would never back down from a fight.

He fought, as promised. He even made it back behind the bench to assist Ken Hitchcock for Team Canada at the 2008 World Championships. But that’s as far as he would make it.

“He wanted to come back and coach,” Bowman said. “They thought he might be able to come back and coach, but it was just one thing after another. No good times in the last three years. It was so tough on him, you know?”

Think of how much success Burns had in the NHL. He is the only man to have won the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year with three teams – the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. He won the Stanley Cup with his fourth team, the New Jersey Devils.

In his first season in the NHL, he led the Habs to the Stanley Cup final. In his first two seasons in Toronto, he led the Leafs to two Eastern Conference final appearances. Had the Leafs not lost a Game 7 to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in 1993, you never know …

“I think he would have been a tough out that year,” Bowman said. “I’m sure if they would have played in the Cup final, he probably could have won the Cup for Toronto.”

Burns earned 501 victories in 1,019 regular-season games. Think of how much more he could have accomplished without cancer.

“He coached over 1,000 games in the league, had a great career and obviously has been battling like crazy over the last six years,” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, whose Anaheim Ducks lost to Burns’ Devils in the 2003 Cup final. “You pray for his family. Obviously a real good man and a real good coach, and will be remembered in hockey circles forever.”

Burns was one of the game’s all-time great characters. A former policeman, he brought a policeman’s presence to the job, a commanding authority. He set the tone from the start. Take his second day of training camp with the Leafs. An intrasquad team, coming off a victory, was just going through the motions.

“He came out of the stands and stopped the practice,” said Bob McGill, then a Leafs defenseman, now an analyst on Leafs TV. “He called everybody around. He stood up on the bench, and he lambasted us.”

The language cannot be repeated here.

“It was unacceptable to give a secondary effort,” McGill said. “He wanted the best out of everybody day in, day out. That’s why he had good teams, too. When you’re at work, you’re there to work and to do something to get yourself better. If you’re slacking off and thinking it’s a big joke or whatever, he wouldn’t stand for that. I think that’s what set him apart from a lot of different people.”

But the ex-cop also knew how to play good cop, bad cop. He knew whose backs to pat and whose behinds to kick. And he was a master with matchups, knowing who was skating well on any given night, knowing strengths and weaknesses.

“He was a top-notch coach,” Bowman said. “He made them better, and he made them accountable... He was tough to coach against. I think he got the most out of his teams. He pushed the right buttons. The players would tell you that they had to play at their best to play for him, and that was important.”

Cancer cut short Burns’ career. It might even have kept him out of the Hall of Fame this year. The committee did not select him, despite a petition pleading for the ailing coach.

“I think because he had been diagnosed and was sick it might have hurt his chances,” said Bowman, who has been in the Hall of Fame since 1991. “It’s crazy to think, but they might have said, ‘You know, people think we’re putting him in because he may not be around a lot longer.’ That was not the right thing to think.”

Burns was not a charity case. He never would allow himself to be – not even with a concerned colleague like Bowman, going to scout hockey games, when all he wanted to do was coach them – and he doesn’t need to be now.

“His record is there as a coach, no question about it,” Bowman said. “It was unfortunate that he never got put in this year. I don’t have any doubt that he’ll get in, for sure.”