Burns, players had special bond

Pat Burns established an immediate connection with Canadiens players during his first coaching job. Denis Brodeur/NHLI/Getty Images

It is bittersweet for many, but the man himself was at peace with it all before he left this world.

That Pat Burns' official induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame comes four years after losing his battle with cancer in November 2010 leaves some disappointed, if not angry, that it couldn't have happened when he was still alive.

But just so everyone knows, Pat Burns didn't feel that way before dying.

"Pat wanted to thank everyone just for being nominated in the first place," his older cousin Robin Burns, a former NHLer who was Pat's agent during his coaching career, told ESPN.com last month. "Everyone was disappointed he didn't get in at the time, but Pat said, 'Just to be nominated and hear that nomination while I was alive ... everyone says I'll get in one day. I want you to just assure everybody that I'm not upset I didn't get in. My family members and friends are more upset than me.'

"And he wanted everyone to know that everyone who got in that year (2010) was deserving of the Hall of Fame.''

A deserving Hockey Hall of Fame inductee if ever there was one, Burns won three Jack Adams Awards as the NHL's top coach with three different teams, racking up 501 wins as well as a Stanley Cup championship. His HHOF pedigree is unquestioned, which is funny given that coaching was not necessarily what Burns thought he would do for a living when it all began.

A cop before a coach

Burns was a police officer and spent 16 years on the force in Gatineau, Quebec, taking part in dangerous undercover operations in the biker and drug world.

"When he was an undercover cop, they locked him up in Kingston (Ontario) penitentiary to try and bust the drug rings," longtime general manager Cliff Fletcher, who hired Burns to coach the Maple Leafs, told ESPN.com. "He told me he was so scared, the only person that knew he was in there was the warden. If anyone had ever found out about it, he would have ended up dead. But he helped uncover a huge drug ring in prison.''

Those years as a cop would forge Burns' no-nonsense demeanor as a coach.

"He was stern but fair," said Chris Chelios, who played for Burns in Montreal. "He was a great judge of character. You weren't going to fool him or get anything by him. His cop instincts, here's a guy that went undercover in a biker gang and put his life on the line for that; some of those instincts carried over into hockey.''

Coaching for Gretzky

During his years as a police officer in the Hull-Gatineau area, Burns began coaching bantam and midget teams. That eventually led to a bigger step: being offered the head coaching job with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques in 1984. At first, he tried to balance coaching and being on the police force, perhaps still not convinced the whole coaching thing would pan out.

Wayne Gretzky, who owned the Olympiques at the time, eventually would convince him to focus on coaching. Indeed, The Great One told Burns he thought he had a great future in the sport and would coach in the NHL one day. Burns quit the police force for good and certainly would live up to Gretzky's prediction.

"I got to really know Pat well when he coached for us in Hull," Gretzky said. "He was an intriguing guy.

"Obviously, he went on to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. He was pretty simplistic; he just wanted good team defense, and he wanted players to work hard. I think that's why he idolized players that he had, like Dougie Gilmour and Marty Brodeur, players of that caliber, because they worked hard, and that's what he believed in. Pat was a hard-working guy, and he expected that out of his players.''

The Montreal Canadiens came calling in 1987, offering Burns their AHL head coaching job in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Gretzky didn't give it a second thought. He and Olympiques GM Charlie Henry quickly allowed Burns out of his contract with the Olympiques.

"I had always told Pat that if he ever got that opportunity, Charlie Henry and I would never stand in his way," Gretzky said. "He was ecstatic to get the Montreal job. He went on to have a fabulous career.''

Coaching his hometown Habs

Burns grew up in Montreal and as late as the early 1980s was buying scalped tickets to watch the Canadiens play at the Montreal Forum. Less than a decade later, he would be standing behind their bench. Burns replaced Jean Perron as head coach of the Canadiens in 1988-89, winning the Jack Adams Award his very first season after leading Montreal to the league's second-best record and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

Not bad for a rookie head coach.

"Because of his character and judgment and the way he talked to people, for us it was instant credibility,'' Chelios said in explaining how a relative unknown like Burns won over the veteran-laden Habs. "For a guy that just came up from junior hockey with no experience in the NHL, he sure handled himself well. The players wanted to play for him because he was fair, he treated everyone the same.''

Players in Montreal were treated to two Burns traits that he would carry throughout his career: flashes of temper and his gregarious, humorous side. Chelios began chuckling as he thought of a couple of anecdotes.

"One of the funniest things was a time when we weren't playing well, and the power play wasn't going well. He was having one his moments on the ice at practice yelling, a bit of a rant, he lost his temper -- not that we argued, but he started yelling at me, 'If we don't figure out this problem I'm going to lose my job,''' Chelios recalled.

"And I said, 'Well, if you're worried about losing your job, you should have never taken the head coaching position of the Montreal Canadiens, because it's inevitable you're going to lose your job.' He started laughing.''

And another memory that Chelios won't soon forget:

"One time the wife of a player he made a healthy scratch came into his coach's office at the Montreal Forum and threw an ashtray at him,'' Chelios said, laughing. "Pat was literally running out of his office, scared but laughing at the same time. I just happened to be in the hallway at the time and saw it all. That was funny.''

More than anything, Burns was loyal to the guys who brought it night in and night out. Even after the blockbuster trade that sent him from Montreal to Chicago, Chelios remembers Burns reaching out to him.

"He invited me up to his cabin the summer after I got traded, because we really were on great terms, me and Pat," Chelios said. "He had no say in that trade.

"He was a great guy. I'm happy for his family. The Hall of Fame induction is just so well-deserving.''

After that initial trip to the Stanley Cup finals with the Habs in 1989, Montreal made three straight second-round playoff exits, which prompted his dismissal as Canadiens coach. However, it wasn't that simple.

Surprise! Going to Toronto

By that point, Robin Burns was helping his younger cousin manage his career. But for the next incredible feat, they brought in superagent Don Meehan.

"Pat asked me one day if when he needed any help he could call me. I said, 'Sure, by all means,''' Meehan recalled.

That was before a rule was instituted that banned player-agents from also representing coaches. Former Habs GM Serge Savard informed Meehan after the 1991-92 season that he would be letting Burns go. That's when Meehan sprang into action.

"I went down to Montreal and negotiated a settlement with Montreal for Pat and the balance of his contract," Meehan said. "And at the same time when I knew that was happening, I called up Cliff Fletcher and told him what was happening in Montreal.''

Fletcher's reaction? Hiring Burns was a no-brainer.

"Donnie called me. I jumped on it right away, obviously,'' said Fletcher, the former Leafs GM. "Pat Burns, Jack Adams winner in Montreal; when Donnie called to say he was available, I said, 'I'm in.'''

On the same memorable day, Burns said goodbye in one news conference in Montreal and later in the afternoon said hello at another big news conference in Toronto.

"It came to a complete surprise to everybody it all happened in the same day,'' Meehan said.

"I remember we had the press conference at center ice at Maple Leaf Gardens," Fletcher said. "We had a stage set up. It may have been the biggest press conference the Toronto Maple Leafs have ever had.''

Fletcher had traded for Doug Gilmour the season before, a franchise-altering blockbuster. Adding Burns behind the bench was just as important.

"In the 1980s, outside of Wendel [Clark], who was their only hope, the Leafs had no credibility," Fletcher said. "When Pat Burns walked up there on that stage, it was instantaneous. It was a huge story.''

The Burns-Gilmour years

The Leafs never won a Cup under Burns, but back-to-back conference finals in 1992-93 and 1993-94 have a special place in the hearts and memories of Toronto hockey fans. The key was instant chemistry between the coach and the franchise player. Burns got the maximum out of Gilmour, who was a key contributor for the Calgary Flames team that beat Burns and the Habs in the 1989 finals. For the Leafs, Gilmour became the kind of No. 1 man he had never been before.

"Just the way Pat explained it when we first met, he said to me, 'You have to be the best player in practice and the best player in games. You have to overachieve,''' Gilmour recalled to ESPN.com. "With him, there was no nonsense. He demanded a great work ethic. He had that intimidation factor, as well. He would just look at me if I didn't play well, and I knew.''

A bond formed between the two that extended beyond the rink.

"Off the ice, he was a great guy," Gilmour said of Burns. "He liked his beers, he hung with us at times. He loved his Harleys. He loved playing guitar. Just a terrific guy.''

Gilmour laughs at one funny memory.

"We always played jokes in the dressing room," Gilmour said. "We were in Minnesota one day, and we had cups on the top of the door, leaning, so that whoever comes in gets drenched. Well, who walks through but Pat. His hair was always combed neatly, perfectly. His hair was down to his nose after getting drenched. We were shocked, almost. But then we all started howling. He said, 'I'll get you back, whoever did this, I'll get you back.'

"Nobody ever said who did it.''

Fletcher remembers a coach who was tight with his core players, an important factor for those Leafs teams that played with such emotion.

"Pat gravitated towards top players. He was smart," Fletcher said. "Wendel, Dave Ellett, Gilmour, Felix Potvin, they'd go biking with him and everything. They were his boys. But the poor guys at the bottom end of it, they were whipping boys; he squeezed every ounce out of them. But it was good; he had success.''

Burns led the underdog Leafs to a first-round upset of Detroit in 1993 before ultimately seeing the dream end in the conference finals two rounds later against Gretzky and the Kings. Just six years earlier, The Great One had let Burns out of his junior contract to follow his pro coaching aspirations.

"Gretzky said to Pat at the time, 'The only thing I'm going to regret by letting you out of this contract is that you're going to come back to haunt me,''' Robin Burns said with a chuckle. "They had a good laugh over that for sure. And that last game in Toronto, Gretzky put on a show. Here's the guy that gave Pat one of his greatest chances in life, and now they're against each other in the final game with a chance to go to the Stanley Cup finals.''

Said Gretzky on facing Burns in that series: "All I remember thinking was, he wanted to beat me as badly as I wanted to beat him. That's what makes sports so competitive. You can be friends when it's all said and done. We never talked once during the series. But once it was over, obviously we chatted.''

By the slimmest of margins, the Kings edged the Leafs in a thrilling series during which Gretzky kept his best for last -- his Game 7 hat trick, the stuff of legends.

"I thought they were a better team than we were. Obviously, we got a little bit lucky," Gretzky said. "Marty McSorley took his play to another level for us. Kelly Hrudey was exceptional in the series for us. It was a special series. Wendel to another level for Toronto. Dougie Gilmour was brilliant. I mean, we were one goal better over seven games; it could have gone either way.

"I always say this: We deserved to get the finals that year, and I'm proud that we did. But I always think that we lost four games to one in the Cup final [to Montreal] and I wonder if the outcome would have been different had Toronto got to the finals. The Leafs had a little more depth than we had.''

Goodbye, Toronto

Burns was relieved of his duties 65 games into the 1995-96 season, famously escaping the Toronto area before the news became official and driving to a cottage in Quebec and away from inquiring journalists. There were rumors Burns wanted out of that stressful Leafs coaching job, but Fletcher showed his gratitude for what the coach had done in Toronto by making sure it was a firing and not a resignation -- the difference being that Burns would get paid for the remainder of his contract, which had one year left.

"All I'll say is that, technically, I fired him," Fletcher told us last month. "But I've never fired a coach in midseason before.''

So read between the lines there.

But there were no regrets for Burns, because it had been a great run with the Habs and Leafs, hockey's two most iconic franchises, from 1988 to 1996.

"He got to coach both Montreal and Toronto back-to-back. It was amazing,'' Robin Burns said. "I think he was one of the best things that happened in that era for the Leafs. He brought excitement.''

Why not another Original Six team?

Burns resurfaced in Boston in 1997 and guided a Bruins team that had been 13th in the East the year before to a fifth-place finish in the conference, garnering him his third Jack Adams Award. But after missing the playoffs in 1999-2000, Burns was fired just eight games into the following season after a 3-4-1 start. It was rock bottom for him.

"The really low point was when he was let go by Harry [Sinden] after eight games," Robin Burns said. "He was as low as you're going to get there.

"He said, 'I've been a cop and a coach all my life, and I'm too old to be a cop now.' I said, 'Pat, it'll come.'''

Robin Burns was more right than he could have imagined.

Lord Stanley beckons

His final NHL stop would be the one that finally fulfilled his last remaining conquest: hoisting a Stanley Cup. Hired by New Jersey ahead of the 2002-03 season, Burns led the Devils past the Ducks in seven games during the 2003 finals, the emotion of winning his first Stanley Cup clear and visible that night in East Rutherford. It was the one thing missing in his great coaching career, and the players on that Devils squad wanted it for him.

"There's always a special bond with your coach when you do go all the way and win it," Martin Brodeur told ESPN.com last month. "I had won it before, but you always want to share that with other people who haven't won. In 2003, it was special because we had some older guys like Turner Stevenson and Jimmy McKenzie that had never won the Cup. And with Burnsy, we could feel it. For me, 2003 was so memorable for that reason -- to see these guys win their first Stanley Cup. It was special.

"I had a special relationship with Pat; it was a guy that I knew really well,'' Brodeur added. "To be able to do that with him in 2003 was really nice.''

Gilmour was watching on TV that night when Burns finally got his Cup and made sure to reach out.

"I was the first guy to send him a voicemail right away," Gilmour said. "I was excited for him, well-deserved and long time coming. When you see that happen for certain guys that you care for, all the effort during all those years, I was so happy for him. It was awesome.''

Like he did in previous stops, Burns got close to his top players in New Jersey. This time, it started with the superstar goalie.

"We used to ride motorcycles together," Brodeur said. "He was there the time I bought my first bike. He said, 'Marty, I'm going to follow you home in my car to make sure you get home safely.'''

Like other players before him, Brodeur also got to experience his sense of humor and his temper flare-ups.

"One day we're in Anaheim for a regular-season game," Brodeur said. "We were sitting in the stands together and talking about everything. The night before we got killed, I think in San Jose or L.A. He was in a great mood as we're talking about different things. But then he says, 'Can you go sit in the room?'

"He gets in the room, and I've never seen a coach break so many things. Throwing sticks, you name it. He was so mad. I was just talking to him two seconds before, and he was fine," Brodeur says, chuckling. "He was in a great mood. But for him, the point of snapping in front of everybody was important. I still laugh at that story.''

Brodeur had an additional interpretation of Burns' moods.

"Whatever way he wore his baseball cap, you knew what his mood was," he said. "If it was sitting deep on his head, then he was ether pissed off or hungover, one or the other. But either way, he wouldn't be very pleasant.''

But late in the 2003-04 season, something was amiss. The players were beginning to wonder about Burns missing time from the team.

"That was obviously a difficult time,'' Brodeur said. "At first we didn't know. He was missing practices and games. A lot was going on in the latter part of the season. Finally he announced he was diagnosed [with] cancer. It was tough on everybody.

"For me, with him battling it, we were close. He stayed at my house one summer, because I lived right beside where he was getting treatment. We enjoyed their company and just to make him feel like we were all together; that was the right thing to do. It was difficult, no doubt about it, though.''

Burns would leave the Devils job after that season and never coach again as he focused his energy on the biggest battle of his life.

A valiant fight

Burns won his first two cancer battles before succumbing to the third one. He went down swinging, for sure.

It was in the spring of 2010, with Burns fighting that third battle, when a movement began via social media to get him elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He fell one or two votes short in the June 2010 selection committee meeting, depending on whom you believe. The outcry was strong.

"One of the biggest disappointments in my life was when he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame the first time. That was a travesty," Fletcher said. "A few people held grudges, I guess. I was sick by it, because I knew he wouldn't be long with us. That really bothered me.''

Brodeur offered his thoughts on the matter.

"You wished he could have enjoyed this moment," Brodeur said, "but at the end of the day, he deserves to be there whether the timing was right on not. At least he's going to be in the Hall of Fame, and his family will really appreciate it. I know that.''

And as Robin Burns made clear in his aforementioned comment, the coach was fine with it all before he died. Pat Burns was confident his day would come, even if he wouldn't be around to see it himself.

A healthy legion of friends, family and former players are expected to be on hand at the Hockey Hall of Fame for his induction ceremony, a testimony to the many people impacted by having Burns in their lives.

"On the exterior, he was pretty outspoken, called a spade a spade, but in the down deep, he was a shy person,'' Robin Burns said. "Pat was very unique, he was flamboyant, he was good with people, but still very humble. I think lots of people in Canada love Don Cherry because he's a blue-collar guy, and Pat was a cop and a coach.

"In those two worlds, people respected how he came up through the ranks. He brought respect and discipline, and players loved playing for him.''