In 2002, I had the honor of attending the Hockey Hall of Fame induction while working for SportsFan Magazine in D.C. It was the first, and sadly the only, time I met the late Roger Neilson.
While a cocktail party filled the Hall in Toronto, Neilson stood in a large, darkened room, greeting fans, well-wishers and old friends. He was a Hall of Famer that night because of his success behind the bench (11 playoff seasons in 15 years, for seven franchises); his influence on other coaches as a mentor and a technological innovator; and, undoubtedly, because he was universally well-liked.
But as much as he chose to downplay it at the time, Neilson was also a Hall of Famer because he was battling bone marrow cancer; because time was running out and the hockey community felt the necessity to induct him as a builder while Neilson still had a chance to appreciate the honor.
Shaking his hand and talking puck with Neilson in that room had a bittersweet, last hurrah vibe; Neilson would finally succumb to cancer seven months later.
On Friday in Stanstead, another NHL coach who admits he's succumbing to cancer made a rare public appearance: Pat Burns, who will have an arena named in his honor when it opens in 2011, looking frail and sounding as straightforward as ever about the reality of his deteriorating health. From the CP:
Burns was forced to leave coaching in 2004 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He beat that only to come down with liver cancer a year later. Then in 2009, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and opted against treatment.
"I know my life is nearing the end and I accept that," he told a few dozen invited guests at Stanstead College. "I probably won't be here when (the arena) is finished, but I'll be looking down on it."
He may not appear at the 2010 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but he should be a part of it. The movement to have Pat Burns honored in this year's class was kick-started this week, and it's a cause the voters would be wise to join.
The movement to draft Burns for the 2010 HOF class has picked up steam on social media, with a "Let's Get Pat Burns into the Hockey Hall of Fame - NOW!" Facebook page nearing 1,000 fans:
He retired from coaching because of recurring bouts with cancer. After his latest diagnosis (lung cancer), he decided to forego treatment. Pat Burns will not be with us much longer. Let's pressure the NHL, the Hockey Hall of Fame and the media to get Pat Burns fast-tracked into the Hockey Hall of Fame. While he and his family can enjoy it. While he can attend in person. And while he can bask in the ultimate, and well-deserved achievement of a stellar career cut short. Please help us spread the word.
Several of the dignitaries suggested Burns should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Lamoriello said: "I'm sure that's in the very near future." Lamoriello added that he "got chills" listening to people talk about Burns yesterday.
Words like those of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who put Burns over in an emotional speech:
"He accomplished a difficult feat: He is the only coach to have won three Jack Adams awards, which is awarded to the coach of the year, with three different teams. That record will be very difficult to beat.
"He also wears a Stanley Cup ring that he won in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils. Pat Burns always knew how to get the best from his players. Pat Burns is a really great guy. Pat, you are a winner."
On top of those awards, Burns has the numbers in his favor as well:
• Career record of 501-353-151-14, for 1,167 points and a .573 winning percentage.
• Sixth in playoff games coached 149 and eighth in playoff wins with 78.
But it's not about the numbers with the Hall of Fame, as much as some of us (and Dino Ciccarelli) wish it were. It's about politics and geography and timeliness and nostalgia. Pat Burns has all of that, and more, in his favor.
The players up for the Hall of Fame in 2010 are going to cause headaches for the voters. The candidacy of Pat Burns as a "builder" shouldn't be one (procedures for voting are here). Put Pat Burns in the Hall; god-willing, he'll be around to appreciate the ultimate tribute to a great hockey man.