On June 1, 1988, Pat Burns was named head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. He was 36 years old, and many fans had never heard of him at all.
Not everyone now remembers the time before the Senators returned to Ottawa. In those years, Ottawa was a hotbed of junior hockey, one of the best junior hockey cities in the country (yes, even including the West). With two major junior teams in two leagues and several thriving Tier II teams, the wintertime Citizen was packed with junior hockey talk and sometimes not much else.
This is where Pat Burns learned his trade, as coach of the Hull Olympiques in the Q, bringing along players like Lucky Luc Robitaille, Stephane Matteau, and Benoit Brunet; very nearly winning the 1986 Memorial Cup but losing the final to Guelph. And it was in those copies of the Citizen, read on March Breaks and Christmas vacations with my mom in Ottawa, that I first became aware of Pat Burns.
After leaving Hull, Burns went to Sherbrooke for a year to coach the AHL Canadiens, no doubt helped by the fact that he was basically a local (Stanstead, the town where Burns is from and Magog, where he lives today, form a tight little triangle with Sherbrooke, which is about 40 minutes up Autoroute 55 from Stanstead).
Less than a year later, he was appointed to the most uncompromising job in hockey, bar Viktor Tikhonov’s.
To call it a meteoric rise is to laughably underestimate the situation. Burns was 36 years old. Few thought he was ready. Thankfully there was a distraction.
Everyone wanted to talk about one thing. Pat Burns was a former cop.
Former cop became, immediately, one of the touchstone tropes in Canadian sportswriting. It would endure. For fifteen years. Pat Burns, former Gatineau cop. It was how he was defined. And he looked the part, and fit the part, and played the part, in both official languages. He had that cop’s spreading middle, from riding in a cop car, meals on the run, late-night paperwork. He had a cop’s direct way of talking. He had a dramatic and luxuriant cop moustache, except when he didn’t, and when he didn’t you remembered his upper lip as the place that moustache used to be. He had a cop’s incipient jowls. He had a cop’s focus on security. He had an 80s cop’s high, brushed-back hair, receding notably but not ridiculously at the temples. He had a cop’s hair-trigger temper. He had a cop’s charm-you smile. He had a cop’s Irish name, and a cop’s Irish face, like a red fist when he was chewing out a referee.
If he hadn’t shown up on La Soiree du Hockey as the head coach of the Canadiens, you’d have utterly believed him on Lance et Compte and He Shoots, He Scores as a wearied but bulldog detective investigating one of Pierre Lambert’s teammates mixed up in a gently scary drug operation with two brown-skinned, jheri-curled Colombians.
And it would have worked. Because, oddly unlike how these things work in the real world, Pat Burns really was a cop. Gatineau at the time, and today, is a suburb but also a bit of a party town - home to some rough bars and a few rough customers, but mostly a lot of teenagers coming over the river to drink. Burns’s handling of teenaged junior hockey players was probably not a lot different from his handling of teenaged weekend revelers.
In other words, he wasn’t acting. This guy was for real.
He commanded authority, instead of demanding it
Pat Burns’s stereotypical cop body has been obliterated by cancer. Liver cancer. Bowel cancer. Now, lung cancer. Last week, I saw a recent press photo at the opening of the Pat Burns Arena in Stanstead. It showed Fuck-You-Come-Here-And-Say-That Pat Burns with the face of a bird - with a bird’s narrow, suspicious head and a bird’s infinitely sad round eyes.
Fuck, Pat, what has happened to you?
I am not going to talk about his courage, not going to talk about his indomitability, not going to talk about fight and pain tolerance and hockey and toughness and fight. I am not keen to address the issue of mortality at all. Pat Burns became the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens at 36. Today, I am 37. Soon, no doubt sooner than I imagine, I will be 38.
This makes me feel bad. Because Pat Burns, we all know, is dying. And I don’t want to die.
What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about hockey
I knew Pat Burns was a former cop when he was appointed, because it came up all the time when he coached the Olympiques as well (in addition to the always-insisted-on fact of his impeccable bilingualism). What I didn’t appreciate, but would come to understand very soon, was that there was a strict implication from that.
It meant that Pat Burns was working-class.
Middle class people, I already had a sense, did not become cops. They don’t. They didn’t, they don’t, they probably won’t, although what “middle class” will mean in 20 years, Lord only knows. Cop work - with its danger, its boredom, its hours and its spirit-sapping bath in the spleen of the underclass - is inherently upwardly mobile. It feeds aspirations. It is one of the bridges (once plentiful in Canada, now painfully few) for the sons and daughters of the working class to reach the middle.
We love to talk about hockey in Canada. We hate talking about class. That, no doubt, is part of what many have identified in Canada as our “middle class standard”, what has proved so successful at creating our comfortable, genteel, pleasurable society. Middle class people don’t talk about class, so we as a people don’t talk about it much. But hockey is one of those areas that pervades Canadian culture from side to side and top to bottom, and so you can use it like a lens to see class in our culture, clear as day.
And Pat Burns was a working-class coach.
So now, because we don’t talk about it, I have to talk about class and hockey. What’s a working-class coach? Roughly speaking, she or he believes in three things.
You build everything from the bottom up, from your goalmouth out. A team, a roster, a game, a plan, a set of skills.
Everybody has to pull their own weight.
You don’t faff around trying to make a moose into a swan. Let swans be swans.
None of this gets into technique, tactics, or even much into strategy. It doesn’t get into the details of hockey. On those, every coach is different, and everything we once knew seems to be wrong anyway. A working-class approach is predicated on two principles - the deck is always stacked against you, and there is (literally) no time to lose.
Working class means not having meaningful second chances. It means having to produce now, because you don't have a fallback. It means playing junior a thousand miles from home and trying to get enough high school in just to stay eligible. It means playing a whole camp and asking for just a Red Wings jacket because it doesn't occur to you that you might be worth more. And then not even getting the jacket.
Working class hockey was long the backbone of the country's hockey greatness. It meant names like Esposito, Mikita, Gretzky, Lafleur, Richard, Morenz. Names that, no matter how famous, would always bear the stamp of hyphenated Canadians. Working class doesn't just mean lunch bucket players although it means lunch bucket moms and dads. But it does mean being grateful for what you have and coming to the rink early and being willing to fight like hell for whatever you got from the game. It's Gzowski's description of Gretzky alone on a rink until the caretaker gives the third final warning and the lights turn off. It's Dryden's description of Lafleur flipping the same lights on himself and skating circles in the unsteady gloaming of warming floods, the concrete walls blasting back the puckthud against unsprung boards.
Of course, it means something else too. It means Stan Jonathan, Rejean Houle, George Armstrong, Wendel Clark. Heart and soul guy. Energy guy. Tough nosed guy. Pat Burns guy.
We like to tell ourselves a bit of a lie about success in our lives, that success comes from hard work, responsibility, teamwork, grit. And we tell ourselves that the successful people in our lives, the middle classes, those who enjoy the fruits of prosperity, exemplify those values.
Of course they don't, or don't always. What they share is opportunities; sometimes one that has been grabbed onto greedily and clung to desperately, like a sixth defenseman spot or a job on the force; more often the endless stream of opportunities that come to the connected, the educated, the well-spoken, those of fortunate birth or circumstsance.
In hockey, though, those public virtues are much closer to the mark of success. Not always, but surprisingly often. They are the Pat Burns virtues, those that a hockey team with just enough talent but enough collective will can grab for themselves, as a way out of the competitive hurly-burly. Hard work, responsibility, teamwork, grit. Call them, for want of a better word, the Doug Gilmour values. And it is no surprise that Doug Gilmour went from being a very good hockey player to being a national symbol of public virtue, while playing hockey for Pat Burns.
We don't necessarily share those values, we don't even necessarily privilege them. But we do celebrate them. And if you are working-class, they are a way out.
What he did
Pat Burns took a good hockey team and made them instantly into a great hockey team. He did it with conscious eyes on those public virtues that lift a team, and so leveraged a superstar goaltender. I don't think I want to say any more than that. He stood up for personal responsibility, and protected his men. And he was smarter than the guys he stood next to.
Montreal's distant hockey past rings loud with the upper-class, middle-class, amateur spirit, but the Canadiens specifically are the working man's team. Mental toughness and professionalism. That line again, of working-class heroes. Morenz. Richard. Lafleur. That is Burns's line. It was also Scotty Bowman's, another working class Quebecker. That line, hard work and the indomitable desire to presevere, made flesh, becomes the will to survive. The will to push through. The will to keep the puck from going in your net.
Pat Burns took that first Canadiens team by the scruff of the neck and led them to 115 points. Except for Tom Johnson in Espo’s 76-goal season, no one had done that before as a rookie coach. Only Todd McLellan - wind-aided through “overtime loss” inflation - has done it since. They lost an epic Stanley Cup final to a brilliant Calgary Flames team. And, bizarrely, management began to slowly pick the team apart.
The end is only the beginning, except when the story stays the same
Burns’s tenure in Montreal, shot through with success but not Cups, didn’t end in triumph. The Canadiens took a shellacking in the press for their second-round playoff exit in 1992 after gritting their way to 93 points and an Adams Division championship. Many of the young players on a shockingly young team, including John Leclair and Mathieu Schneider, had been cruelly exposed in a whitewash by the Bruins.
On May 31, 1992, Pat Burns resigned as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. A combative press conference followed in which members of the local media levelled the accusation that Burns’s resignation had been forced. Pat Burns fired back “prove it”. He remained, to the end, his own man, and damned sure he wanted you to know it. He was 40 years old, and in what many saw as a betrayal he was headed to Toronto to take over as the head coach of the Leafs, a town with an even more ambivalent relationship to working-class hockey but a team that was crying out for the discipline and good sense that Burns would bring to them.
Jacques Demers would take the Habs players that Burns had so painstakingly built from youths and win the Stanley Cup with them, improbably and rather wonderfully, the next year. Having flown that team to the sun, he would then sink it under the waves, laden with hubris, wax and feathers.
It is Burns’s place, sandwiched between two other francophone coaches with Stanley Cups on their resumes, in the long, cold shadow of Scotty Bowman, that denies him some part of the recognition that he is due as the last coach to preside over a Canadiens team of enduring quality. The style may also be a factor; a Burns team never was dull to watch (not even in New Jersey, amazingly) but Burns’s Habs were in no way the firewagon teams of Scotty Bowman, or even of Bob Berry, or the pint-sized sprites of Demers.
I’ll let others talk about what Burns went on to do elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, until cancer started to eat him from the inside six years ago, Pat Burns’s reputation in Montreal and in Quebec slumbered.
”I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Another comfortable lie we tell ourselves is that cancer is no respecter of class or race or creed. This isn't quite right; our whole society swings into action against cancer for you if you have the right speech, birth and income. And of course the dirty cancerous jobs, the dirty cancerous neighborhoods, and the dirty cancerous lifestyles follow the working class around like a malignant web of unsloughable tissue. But one thing remains, in the final analysis, both universal and unshakeably true. Cancer kills you dead, no matter how lucky you have otherwise been. Dead, indeed, is fucking dead.
Pat Burns and I don't share much except a love of the frenzied tussle of a 2-1 hockey game. But I respect the man as a hockey coach, and I feel close to him because he led my favorite team when my passion was at its height, my first years in Montreal, lining up to pay $10 and stand in a cloud of Craven 'A' in the concourse of the old Forum. Let's just say we breathed some of the same smoke, moments I am grateful for.
So yeah, I grew up (hockeywise) with the man, and to see him like this and say Fuck, Pat, what has happened to you? gives me chills. It makes me sad, but mostly it's an intimation of mortality I could do without. I don't want him not to die because I love the guy; I don't want him to die because I still want to pretend that I share something with him. And if he gets cancer and dies, the fear makes me want to cut the tie loose.
Pat Burns says he hopes that some promising young player can take his first steps to greatness in the new arena that bears his name, in that working-class, hanging-on border-country town, Stanstead. I hope so too. As a country, we need those towns. We need those rinks. We need those players. And we still need Pat Burns.