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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)
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)

A cop, a coach, that's all Pat Burns was Add to ...

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.

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."

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."

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.

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