The late Pat Burns embodied the song My Way, which probably explains the delay in his selection to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He won the NHL’s coach-of-the-year award three times, more than anyone else, and he did it with three different teams. He won the 2003 Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, and was an outsized personality in all of his 14 seasons in the league. Loud, blustery and profane, Burns could be hard on employers as well as employees, which probably did not help when it came to getting recognition from the Hall.
But Burns finally made it Monday, more than 3 1/2 years after he died of cancer at the age of 58 (Nov. 19, 2010). He was selected in the builder’s category along with former referee Bill McCreary and four former players: Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, Rob Blake and Peter Forsberg.
No women, who finally broke the Hall of Fame barrier in 2010, were selected this year.
It is interesting that Burns did not make it until two of his ex-bosses, former Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard and long-time Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden, left the Hall of Fame’s selection committee. Luc Robitaille, who played for Burns in junior hockey with the Hull Olympiques in the mid-1980s, was added to the 18-member selection committee this year.
The selection committee members are bound by a confidentiality agreement, which means their deliberations and the final vote on candidates are not made public. It takes 14 of 18 votes to get into the Hall, so not much opposition is needed to keep someone in the cold.
Burns, who became a full-time coach after working 17 years as a police officer and loved to say, “I’m a cop and a coach and that’s it,” was unafraid of ruffling feathers, no matter if it was in the dressing room or the team’s corporate offices. He was the proud son of an Irish-Canadian father and French-Canadian mother, born in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri.
While there were many blow-ups along the way, Burns was able to retain the affection of most of his players, if not his bosses. Did he have any regrets?
“No, I don’t think so,” Burns said shortly before he died. “I think about that often and I don’t think so. It was the way I went. I pointed that way: I’m going there, either lead, follow or get out of the way. I think the guys liked that.”
Line Burns, the coach’s widow, was not concerned about any past slights once the announcement was made.
“I know Pat would have been so happy, so grateful, so proud to accept this honour,” she said. “I have a lack of words today, but one word comes to my mind, it’s grateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Honestly, when I got the call [Monday], I was very surprised, very overwhelmed. I never thought it would come this soon. You learn to be patient about this, because there are so many people with great talent.”
Other than about the absence of a female honouree, there was no quibbling with the rest of the Hall of Fame’s class of 2014. All of the players were among the best at their positions for many years in the 1990s and 2000s, and McCreary was considered the best referee during the same period.
McCreary, in fact, had some interesting memories of his fellow inductees. For the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, McCreary was picked as an official and called the infamous men’s quarter-final game between Canada and the Czech Republic, the one in which Wayne Gretzky was nailed to the bench in the shootout.
Hasek, who was the best goaltender in the world at the time and the only reason the game got to a shootout, was playing for the Czechs. McCreary said when he skated to the Czech net just before the shootout began, Hasek had just one question: Was Gretzky shooting?
And, as McCreary added, “of course, everyone in Canada knows the result of that question.” When the Canadians came home empty-handed, head coach Marc Crawford came in for a blistering for not using Gretzky, although as the years passed, a lot of insiders blamed the decision on associate coach Andy Murray.
Hasek, though, didn’t recall the conversation: “Of course I was thinking about Wayne and does he shoot, but to be honest, I don’t remember asking the question.”