"It was my first year and I didn't really know a lot about being part of a legacy, what I guess you'd call a royal family," he said. "I didn't have that experience. I came from junior to the American league and then plopped right down in the hottest place to work.
"Serge was really good. He told me how things would go and he was right on. We had some good years and then it got critical near the end. It was a little bit nasty but that's Montreal."
Looking back, Mr. Burns said he didn't think his departures in Montreal, Toronto and Boston were because of players tuning him out, as the media accounts of the day maintained.
"After a while, like with all coaches, they said, 'Well, we don't want to go that way no more,'" he said. "Players need something new after a while. They need a new voice in the room. I don't think they stopped listening. They said, 'We're due for a change here, let's do different things different ways.'
"But in New Jersey it was different. Lou [Lamoriello, the GM]said, 'This is the way we're doing it, if you don't like it, goodbye.'"
Mr. Burns became a full-time coach thanks to Wayne Gretzky, who finally convinced him to resign from the police service in Gatineau and coach the junior team he owned at the time, the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. After his playing days ended in junior hockey, Mr. Burns had joined the police service and became a coach as a sideline.
"Yeah, Gretzky said, 'I'll give you a longer contract and pay you whatever [the police]are paying you,'" Mr. Burns said. "He said, 'You won't be here long.' It was exactly that way."
Still, it took Mr. Burns some time to sever his connection with the Gatineau police. He was hired by the Olympiques in 1984 but took a leave of absence from the force in his first two seasons. He did not resign from the service until 1986. True to Mr. Gretzky's prediction, Mr. Burns moved on the following year when Mr. Savard hired him to coach the Sherbrooke Canadiens, the Montreal Canadiens' farm team. One year after that, his NHL career began in Montreal.
Despite winning the coach-of-the-year award three times before he was hired by Mr. Lamoriello, Mr. Burns said he did not learn how to become a winner until he went to New Jersey, where he finally won an NHL championship. He said it would not have happened without the guidance of Lamoriello, who is also known as a demanding taskmaster.
"I think I learned things that I thought I knew," he said. "I've never had that kind of relationship with a GM. He's an easy guy to work for. He wants to win, he's the boss and you have to accept it. He's a guy who knows where he's going."
By the time Mr. Burns was forced to step down as the Devils head coach in 2004 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, his NHL coaching record was 501-350-175. The cancer went into remission and Mr. Burns hoped to return to coaching but he was stricken again, this time with liver cancer. He fought that off as well, making his final appearance as a coach as an assistant on the Canadian team at the 2008 world championships. But when cancer attacked his lungs in 2009, Mr. Burns decided not to seek further treatment.
"I'd say he has to be a poster child for inspiration," Robin Burns said. "He never once pitied himself. He never once talked about what was happening to him."
As his illness advanced, Mr. Burns said it made him more introspective and brought him closer to his daughter and son from his first marriage. While he always spent his summers with his children at his beloved second home on Lake Memphrémagog in Quebec's Eastern Townships, he admitted the demands of an NHL coaching career made family life difficult.