Former NHL coach Pat Burns dies

Pat Burns, one of the most successful NHL coaches of the past 20 years, died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 58.

Pat Burns, one of the most successful NHL coaches of the past 20 years, died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Burns, 58, died while surrounded by his family at La Maison Aube-Lumière in Sherbrooke, Que.

During his 14-year NHL coaching career, Burns posted a 501-353-151-14 record in 1,019 games behind the bench of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils.

Burns won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003, and is the only person in league history to win three Jack Adams Trophies, awarded to the NHL's coach of the year.

Pat Burns in his own words

"To listen to the national anthem being sung at the Montreal Forum and look up and see all those Stanley Cup banners up there and saying, 'What am I doing here?'" — on his first game as coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

"It was a great time … just some great people.… Got to the final, Calgary decided they weren't going to lose another one like they did in '86 [to Montreal]." — on Montreal losing the 1989 Stanley Cup final to the Flames.

"I remember being on the ice after the game, and I remember Ron MacLean coming up to me with the microphone, and I didn't know what to say. I was baffled for words." — on winning the 2003 Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils.

"I tell my friends and family if you feel something, go to the doctor, get diagnosed, get something checked out." — on the importance of personal health.

"I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me. I've had a great life, I've had an enjoyable life, I've had some fun. I've been lucky to be part of one of the greatest sports around [and] the National Hockey League." — on retiring from coaching after being diagnosed with cancer.

"Just as they will remember Pat for his success as a coach, hockey fans also will remember his humour, his honesty, his humanity and his courage. As it mourns the loss of an outstanding contributor to the game, the National Hockey League sends heartfelt condolences to Pat's family and friends," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

A former police officer from Gatineau, Que., known for his passion, Burns took over as coach of the Habs in 1988 after serving as the bench boss of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Hull Olympiques and the Sherbrooke Canadiens of the American Hockey League.

Within a year of his arrival, Montreal was playing in the Stanley Cup final, and even though the Habs lost to the Calgary Flames in six games, Burns's star was on the rise as he won the Jack Adams Trophy at the end of the season.

His next port of call was Toronto, where he made an immediate impact, guiding the Maple Leafs to the 1993 conference finals and winning another Jack Adams Trophy in his first campaign with the club.

"Pat forged a tremendous bond, not only with a very good veteran team in Toronto, but also with Leafs fans everywhere," said Cliff Fletcher, the Leafs senior adviser and the general manager responsible for bringing Burns to Toronto.

"He commanded respect from the players and the team quickly had great success while taking on the identity of the head coach. The Leafs’ rise at the time was a testament to Pat’s strength, toughness and determination. Hiring him 18 years ago was easily my best decision in hockey, and we developed a great friendship that I will always treasure. Pat will be greatly missed."

Burns and the Leafs made the conference finals the next year, but he was fired during the 1995-96 season.

Unprecedented success

Burns wasn't out of work for long, as he landed the head-coaching job with the Bruins, and won an unprecedented third Jack Adams award in 1998. 

"On behalf of the Jacobs family [Jeremy Jacobs is the owner of the Bruins] and the entire Boston Bruins family, I would like to express our deep sorrow on the passing of Pat Burns," said Bruins president and Hall of Fame player Cam Neely. "Pat was a great coach and more importantly a wonderful man. The Bruins are honoured to have him as a part of our history. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Burns family."

Success in Boston was fleeting as the Bruins missed the playoffs in 2000. It was the only time a team coached by Burns failed to qualify for the post-season.

A poor start to the 2000-01 campaign resulted in his being fired after only eight games, but Burns had the last laugh as coach of New Jersey, guiding the Devils past the Bruins in the first round of the 2003 playoffs en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

Burns was on top of the hockey world, but his career took a life-altering direction following the 2003-04 season when he was forced to step down as coach of the Devils after being diagnosed with colon cancer.

He survived colon cancer but was diagnosed with liver cancer the following year. Once again, he beat it and everything appeared to be back to normal in his life.

But in 2009, Burns revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer a third time, this time lung cancer.

During his final years, Burns lived in Florida, where he attended NHL games in Tampa Bay as a consultant for the Devils. He credited his wife Line for helping him win his cancer battles, and always stressed that he didn't want hockey fans to pity him.

"I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me. I've had a great life, I've had an enjoyable life, I've had some fun," Burns told Scott Morrison of Hockey Night in Canada in 2009.

"I've been lucky to be part of one of the greatest sports around [and] the National Hockey League."

Erroneous demise

There were erroneous reports on Sept. 17 that Burns had died. Twitter went ablaze with the news and some media websites reported the story, but Burns confirmed to Morrison he was very much alive and merely visiting family in Quebec.

"Tell them I'm alive. Set them straight," he said at the time.

Burns's last public appearance was in early October in Stanstead, Que., for the groundbreaking ceremony for an arena to be named after him. In March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeted the ailing Burns in announcing the arena's construction.

"I had the privilege of meeting with Pat Burns in March when the Government of Canada joined with the City of Stanstead and the Government of Quebec to announce that a new hockey arena would be built and named in honour of a man best known for his tough and gritty approach to the game of hockey," said the prime minister in a statement Friday. "He met his final and most difficult battle with that same tough and gritty spirit.

"Canada has lost a sports legend today, but Pat Burns' legacy will live on in the players and coaches whose careers he touched, as well as the young people who will skate in the Pat Burns Arena for years to come. He will not soon be forgotten."

Led by Morrison and hockey commentator Don Cherry, there was hope Burns would get enough support to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame without the mandatory three-year waiting period, but he didn't get in.

Burns is survived by his wife, his daughter, Maureen, son Jason, stepdaughter, Stephanie and stepson, Maxime.

Hockey world mourns death

The news of the death of former NHL coach Pat Burns travelled quickly on Friday. Predictably, Burns was remembered with heartfelt fondness from former players, agents and coaches.

"He was a confrère, we stick together. We competed against each other, we yell at each other, but when someone dies in the coaching fraternity, it's a sad day. Pat Burns should have been in the Hall of Fame this year. Not because he was dying, but because he was a Hall of Fame coach. Five-hundred wins, a Stanley Cup, three times coach of the year —  to me, it would have been so special for him, before he died, to be in the Hall of Fame. We got the arena for him but I don't know why that didn't happen."  — Jacques Demers, who replaced Burns as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1992 and later became his friend.

"He was a really good person deep down. He was all about winning, but he cared. He  protected his players. He pushed hard, but you felt protected."  — Player agent Pat Brisson.

"Pat Burns may have saved my life. I came from a little town in Quebec called Ripon, with 400 people. If Pat hadn't got me out of my village, I don't know where I would have ended up."  — Former 50-goal scorer Stephane Richer.

"It was a matter of time before we brought him to Montreal. I liked Jean Perron, but at the time we needed a coach that was tougher and that was Pat. He was a hard worker and he had the respect of the players."  — Former Canadiens general manager and Hall of Fame player Serge Savard on hiring Burns in 1988.

"On behalf of the ownership, management, staff, and players of the New Jersey Devils, we are all deeply saddened by the loss of Pat Burns. Pat was a close friend to us all, while dedicating his life to his family and to the game of hockey. He has been part of our family here in New Jersey for eight years. Today, the hockey world has lost a great friend and ambassador. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Line, and the entire Burns' family."  Devils President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello.

"Obviously sad. The first time I went to a Stanley Cup final [in 2003], we lost in Game 7 in New Jersey and Pat was coaching the team. Just watching overall his coaching career, he coached over 1,000 games in the league, won over 500 games, had a great career and obviously has been battling like crazy over the last six years, and eventually submitted. I pray for his family. He was a real good man and a real good coach and will be remembered in hockey circles forever."  Detroit coach Mike Babcock, who lost to Burns's Devils while coaching the Anaheim Ducks.

"He was a great coach for me in New Jersey, and I had my best years under Pat. As a coach he really knew how to get me going and fire me up. He taught me a lot about myself and how to play in this league, so I'm very thankful to have known Pat Burns. I watched him when he coached the Toronto Maple Leafs, being a Toronto boy. He had Dougie Gilmour and [Dave] Andreychuk and Wendell Clark, and I always wanted them to win a Cup. When L.A. beat 'em out that one time, I hurt just as much as they did when they went out, so when we all won the Cup together in [New] Jersey, it was nice."  — Minnesota Wild centre and Toronto native John Madden.