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Coach Pat Burns talks to referee Brad Watson, left, during his tenure as coach of the New Jersey Devils in April, 2004.

BILL KOSTROUN/Bill Kostroun/The Associated Press

There were only two words to describe Pat Burns, those close to him say.

"Many times he said, 'I'm a cop and a coach and that's it,'" said his cousin Robin Burns, who was also his agent. "What most people admired most about Pat was that he was part of the blue-collar people. He was very down to earth."

Pat Burns, who died at 58 after a six-year battle with cancer, looked every bit of the two major occupations in his life. Michael Farber, a writer for Sports Illustrated, once said, "Pat Burns looks like every Irish cop who ever walked a beat in Boston," by way of explaining the affection Boston Bruins fans had for Mr. Burns when he coached the team from 1997 through 2000. He was similarly loved, for a while anyway, by fans for the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and the New Jersey Devils.

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Mr. Burns had an earthy sense of humour to match his blunt, outspoken manner and both were evident two months ago when a flurry of media reports erroneously said he died. He called the television network TSN to set the record straight.

"Here we go again," Mr. Burns said. "They're trying to kill me before I'm dead. I come to Quebec to spend some time with my family and they say I'm dead. I'm not dead, far [expletive]from it. They've had me dead since June.

"Tell them I'm alive. Set them straight."

The identification with the working class was not an affectation. Mr. Burns was the youngest of six children of an Irish-Canadian father, Alfred, and French-Canadian mother, Louise, who spent his early years in Saint-Henri, a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal.

When Mr. Burns was 3, his father died at 49 of a heart attack after being badly burned when a blow torch he was using exploded. His mother remarried a few years later and the family moved to Gatineau, Que., across the river from Ottawa.

There was never any uncertainty about Mr. Burns. He was an uncompromising coach who made it clear to his players that he was in charge. Shortly before his death, Mr. Burns said he never regretted that approach and would not change a thing.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "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."

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Many of them did, since Mr. Burns was the only NHL head coach to win the Jack Adams Trophy as the coach of the year three times with three teams - the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Bruins. He also won the Stanley Cup in 2003 with the Devils, one year before cancer struck him for the first time.

Mr. Burns was known for his ability to quickly turn around floundering hockey teams. The knock on him, though, was that his loud, demanding style wore out his players after a few years and they tuned him out. One of those players said Mr. Burns was, indeed, a demanding coach who could wear on people but he was also someone a player could look back on years later and appreciate.

"He was very intimidating," said Doug Gilmour, who starred on Burns's 1993 Maple Leafs team that was stopped one game short of meeting the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final. "He demanded everybody follow the program and have a strong work ethic. He made us that much better.

"He just had to look at me. I'd shake my head and say, 'I'll be better tomorrow.'"

Mr. Burns said the Toronto fans, who blindly support the Leafs despite a Cup drought of 43 years and counting, were the best to deal with.

"Toronto was a great place to work, a fun place to work," he said. "People were so hockey-oriented, hockey-minded, without being too critical. In Montreal, they got downright nasty sometimes."

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However, Mr. Burns admitted, he was not experienced enough at 36 to handle the passion of Canadiens fans when general manager Serge Savard gave him his first NHL head coaching job in his hometown in 1988.

"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.

"The kids get cheated out of a lot of times with their dad," Mr. Burns said. "They were good about it. I see them now more than ever because of the situation. It was tough on them but they handled it well."

Mr. Burns' second-last public appearance came in March when he travelled from his home near Tampa, against the wishes of his doctors, to attend the announcement of plans to build an arena named after him in the Eastern Townships village of Stanstead.

The announcement coincided with a grassroots campaign to have Mr. Burns inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. A Facebook page drew more than 64,000 members. By June, when the Hall announced the annual inductees, Burns had been nominated and he was expected to be one of those selected.

However, the induction committee inexplicably snubbed him, which created an enormous controversy.

At the ceremony to announce the building of the Pat Burns Arena, Mr. Burns told a gathering that included Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that he did not expect to live long enough to see the arena open in 2011. But, he said, he would be looking down while it was built.

"As for my career," he said at the arena ceremony, "I always said to my kids, 'You don't cry because it's over, you're happy because it happened.' That's the main thing. I'm very happy that it happened."

A few weeks later, Mr. Burns said he could not imagine himself being anything other than a cop and a coach.

"No, that's all I was," he said.

Pat Burns was born in Montreal on April 4, 1952. He died of lung cancer on Nov. 19, 2010. He is survived by his second wife, Line, his daughter, Maureen, and his son, Jason.

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