In 15 years behind four NHL benches, Pat Burns was as uncompromising as the street cop he'd once been, but will also be remembered as a colourful, big-hearted member of the hockey fraternity, which wasted no time in paying tribute to his life.
The gruff, 58-year-old Montreal native coached the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils, winning a record three Jack Adams trophies as the NHL's coach of the year.
"Pat was a close friend to us all, while dedicating his life to his family and to the game of hockey. He has been part of our family here in New Jersey for eight years. Today, the hockey world has lost a great friend and ambassador. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Line, and the entire Burns family," Devils president Lou Lamoriello said in a statement released by the team.
The Canadiens also paid tribute to their former coach, saying the organization was "deeply saddened" by his passing at a hospice in Sherbrooke, Que.
"What hit me most was his sense of humour, which you didn't usually see on the bench or even when he was talking on the radio," former Habs coach Jean Perron, who preceded Burns and later worked with him at the same radio station, told Montreal's CKAC.
The colourful coach also spent 16 years as a police officer. He leaves behind wife Line and children Maureen and Jason.
"He was a confrere, we stick together, we competed against each other, we yell at each other, but when someone dies in the coaching fraternity, it's a sad day," said Jacques Demers, who replaced Burns as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1992 and later became his friend.
"Pat Burns should have been in the Hall of fame this year," added Demers, now a member of the Senate. "Not because he was dying, but because he was a Hall of Fame coach. Five hundred wins, a Stanley Cup, three times coach of the year - to me it would have been so special for him, before he died, to be in the Hall of fame. We got the arena for him but I don't know why that didn't happen."
Burns enjoyed instant success wherever he coached and capped his tumultuous career by guiding the New Jersey Devils to Stanley Cup glory in 2003.
He battled cancer of the colon and the liver in 2004 and 2005 and hoped he had beaten the disease, but in January 2009 doctors found it had spread to his lungs.
The third time, he initially opted to forgo any further treatment, but then decided to go with chemotherapy to try to extend his life as long as possible.
Though Burns had been living in Florida for several years, he returned to his home province this summer to be closer to his family and friends.
"Just as they will remember Pat for his success as a coach, hockey fans also will remember his humour, his honesty, his humanity and his courage," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "As it mourns the loss of an outstanding contributor to the game, the National Hockey League sends heartfelt condolences to Pat's family and friends."
Burns remained as a consultant to the Devils for some time after being diagnosed with the third cancer. And, even though his voice had weakened, he did some morning hockey commentaries on CKAC, a French-language station.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who met Burns at the announcement of the arena in Stanstead last March, said Burns was "known for his tough and gritty approach to the game of hockey."
"He met his final and most difficult battle with that same tough and gritty spirit," Harper said in a statement. "Canada has lost a sports legend today, but Pat Burns' legacy will live on in the players and coaches whose careers he touched, as well as the young people who will skate in the Pat Burns Arena for years to come. He will not soon be forgotten."
In Toronto, the Leafs voiced their condolences and there was a special message from senior adviser Cliff Fletcher, who was general manager when Burns was hired away from the Canadiens.
"He commanded respect from the players and the team quickly had great success while taking on the identity of the head coach," said Fletcher. "The Leafs' rise at the time was a testament to Pat's strength, toughness and determination...Hiring him 18 years ago was easily my best decision in hockey and we developed a great friendship that I will always treasure."
Burns was the only coach to win the Adams Trophy as the NHL's top bench boss with three different teams - Montreal in 1989, Toronto in 1993 and Boston in 1998.
His last official public appearance was in early October, when he attended the groundbreaking ceremony for an arena to be named in his honour in Stanstead, Que.
The wise-cracking Burns couldn't resist a jab at the media, some of whom had reported a few weeks earlier that he had died.
"I'm not dead yet," he told journalists in a hushed tone, his frail body and sunken cheeks showing the physical toll the lengthy battle had taken.
"I'm still alive."
After Burns admitted at his previous public outing last March he likely wouldn't live another year, an online petition gathered thousands of names urging that he be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello said categorically Burns would be inducted "in the very near future," but when 2010 inductees were announced his name was not among them.
It was while coaching the Devils that Burns discovered something was wrong in the weeks leading up to the 2004 NHL playoffs. He announced the day after the Devils were eliminated that he'd been diagnosed with colon cancer.
"For those who know me well, I've never backed down from any fight, and I'm not going to back down from this one," he said after finding out he was sick.
He received hundreds of cards and emails from well-wishers, but it was a tough year: Burns' wife, Line, also underwent surgery in 2004, and their Florida home was damaged by a hurricane.
He let Lamoriello know the team should replace him, and Larry Robinson was named head coach.
Then, hopeful he'd kicked the dreaded disease, the second body blow was delivered - liver cancer. That forced him to have surgery and retreat to his lakeside home in New Hampshire to recuperate and undergo yet more chemotherapy in Boston.
He was speaking enthusiastically of returning to work when cancer struck a third time. It was then he admitted the end was near.
Stephane Richer became a 50-goal scorer under Burns in the NHL, but he also played for him in junior hockey. Richer said he probably never would have made it if Burns had not recruited him as a youngster.
"Part Burns may have saved my life," said Richer. "I came from a little town in Quebec called Ripon, with 400 people. If Pat hadn't got me out of my village, I don't know where I would have ended up."
A big, robust man in his heyday, Burns was already thin and frail as he travelled last March from his home near Tampa, Fla., to southeastern Quebec for the announcement that the Pat Burns Arena would be built at Stanstead College and open in 2011.
"I probably won't see the project to the end, but let's hope I'm looking down on it and see a young Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux" skating on the rink, he said at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I know my life is nearing its end and I accept that.
"As for my career, 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 happy it happened."Report Typo/Error