ARLINGTON, Mass. -- A short drive away from the rink that was about to be dedicated in his name hours later, former Arlington High hockey and football coach Ed Burns sipped from a glass of red wine at the Sons of Italy and held court: shaking hands, talking hockey and posing for pictures like a man half his age.
One former player after another came to up and congratulated the 89-year-old, who led the Spy Ponder hockey squad from 1947 to 1997, on the renaming of the Veterans’ Memorial Skating Rink to the Ed Burns Arena before Tuesday night’s first round game against Billerica in the tournament that also bears his name.
“It’s extremely meaningful I think for everyone in this room,” said Don Murphy, who graduated from Arlington in 1974 and is now an assistant coach for the Spy Ponders. “It’s way past due. It’s an honor for him and an honor to be involved. And I think everyone agrees here.”
Burns’ 50-year tenure, which included 695 wins, a New England championship, eight state and Eastern Mass. titles and 28 Greater Boston League crowns, was originally meant to be a temporary one.
“I never asked to coach. I majored in physics and electrical engineering at BC, and then in the war I was at Villanova,” said Burns, who played quarterback at Boston College and was drafted to play fullback by the Pittsburgh Steelers. “So down in Villanova, I took electrical engineering. So I had many offers for jobs. But then a guy here in Arlington called me and said, ‘Ed, we need a hockey coach, just to fill in for a year until we get a coach.’ So I said, ‘OK. I’m not doing anything. I’ll come down and coach for a year.’”
Two years later, he won that New England title, and Burns -- who also had an extremely successful 21-year run as the school’s football coach -- had found his calling.
“I consider him one of the luckiest guys because it was something he was passionate about and he knew right away,” said his son, Ed Jr., a 1970 Arlington alum. “And when you’re that way about something, it’s not a job. It’s a hobby, as he said a couple times. He just loved to do it. As some guys fish and hunt, his was coaching.”
That interest in the game never waned, according to his son, Brian, who played at Boston College after graduating from Arlington in 1976.
“He was a student of the game. Even in his 50th year, he was going to his seminars to learn new stuff.”
Through that studious approach to the game, Burns developed an aggressive philosophy.
“Change it up every 20 seconds, four lines coming at you,” said the former coach, who had seven children with wife Betty. “How long do you think you’re going to last? Each line had one guy that could skate like hell. And I said as the year went on, they get better and better and better. And you know what? If you couldn’t back-check you couldn’t go out on the next line.”
But it wasn’t the X's and O's which made Burns such a great coach.
“A lot of us had strong father figures and a second one. We had Eddie also,” said Joe Bertegna, a ’69 Arlington alum who went on to play goalie at Harvard and is now the commissioner of Hockey East.
Asked what playing for Burns did for him, Jack Cadagan, Class of ’54, deadpanned, “Just changed my life around, that’s all. [He] got me straightened out; got me going to school and doing the right things; got me into college; got me out of college. Like I said, he did everything.”
Jack Wright, a senior on Burns’ New England championship team, may have said it best.
“He knew how to handle the youngsters.”
Dick DeCaprio, Class of ’64, succeeded Burns and still coaches the Spy Ponders, who christened the Ed Burns Arena with a 4-3 shootout win, sealed by senior Robert Shea’s backhander and four straight saves from sophomore goalie Luke Tremblay.
DeCaprio did his best to sum up Burns’ magic hours before the game.
“He had charisma. That’s the key word, charisma. That’s why he’s the legend that he is.”
And as the dozens of former players at the Sons of Italy could attest, Burns still has plenty of it.