Burns lets mellow side emerge
By DAVID SHOALTS
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
East Rutherford, N.J. In the minutes after the greatest accomplishment of his coaching career, Pat Burns showed both sides of his personality.
Given that it was the detested media he was facing, Burns first chose to be the curmudgeon. It's an act that is not a great stretch by any means but one he has carefully nurtured since he broke into the National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1988-89 season, when he went all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Calgary Flames.
Even the glow of finally winning his first Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils 14 years later could not subdue his hunger for savouring old slights, both real and imagined.
"There was a lot made that you hadn't won since 1989 and that's all we've been hearing," Burns said. "I think the biggest thing is you're afraid to disappoint people. Not really for myself, but I was afraid to disappoint people, disappoint your family, disappoint the fans. I owe a lot to Lou [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello].
"I was out of the game for two years and I read a lot of articles by a lot of people sitting right here, some of them saying that I was done and I wasn't ever going to get back in the game and I wasn't the style of coach people wanted."
By the time he finished, reporters were glancing at each other wondering just who among them wrote those stories. Nobody seemed to remember them but Burns.
But that's the way it's always been with Burns. Pretend the world is against you and sometimes when it comes to the hockey world it is and use that rage to fight your way to success. Even when you're trying to be nice.
Early yesterday morning, after a long celebratory night without sleep and before he drove his family to the airport, Burns took the time for an interview on The Fan, a Toronto sports radio station. After co-hosts Pat Marsden and Don Landry thanked him for being on the show both then and over the years, Burns said: "When I was out of hockey and nobody gave a damn, you guys were good to me. You never forget your friends."
Burns has always been defensive about his reputation as a defence-first coach. While there has been sniping about the boring hockey his teams play, Burns has taken more heat over the years for his emotional style, which wears on today's pampered athletes after a few years. It was that volatility, not his hockey philosophy, that probably led to his firings from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins and his early departure from the Canadiens.
And yet, there is a likable side to Burns, a large gruff man who enjoys a joke and who has a supply of entertaining tales from his 17 years as a cop in the rough and tumble Quebec region of Gatineau. That is why there was a steady stream of sportswriters offering congratulations and a handshake on Monday night after the Devils beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. More than one or two of them were not on speaking terms with him at various times over the years.
The likable side of Burns was shown earlier on Monday when 39-year-old defenceman Ken Daneyko was back in the Devils' lineup for the first time in the Cup final. Daneyko has been a Devil all of his 18 years in the NHL and is regarded by both the players and the fans as the face of the franchise. But Burns sat him down against the speedy Ottawa Senators in the conference final and was not inclined to use him again.
At least not until he considered what dressing for the Cup-winning game would mean to Daneyko and the team. Yes, there was the realization that his players needed an emotional lift like that but there was also a healthy dose of sentimentality in the gesture. It was there again when Burns sent Daneyko on the ice as the seconds counted down to the Devils' 3-0 win in Game 7.
"I couldn't think of a sweeter way to go out," said Daneyko, who stopped on his way to the postgame press conference to thank Burns. "It was a real nice touch that Pat put me out in the last minute."
Burns then strode to the podium, wearing a baseball cap adorned with the words '2003 Stanley Cup Champions,' a phrase Burns once worried that he would never wear.
Last summer, Lamoriello flew into the little town in New Hampshire where Burns retreated two years ago after being fired by the Bruins, his third NHL team.
When he wasn't sitting on his dock there, Burns did some radio and television work, keeping a profile in the NHL. But it was not an easy exile.
He had been chosen coach of the year three times, once each with the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs and the Bruins. But there was no Stanley Cup. The closest he came was in 1989.
Lamoriello was looking for a head coach because the Devils crashed in the first round of the 2002 playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"We sat down and we talked," Burns said. "When he left, he said, 'You know, we're going to do well.' When I came here, he had the passion to believe he wants to win. That, for a coach, is so much easier.
"We sat there for an hour and talked, and when he left I felt real good about it. To have somebody believe in you like that means a lot."
With Burns, of course, there's a steady stream of people who don't. He couldn't help but remember that when someone asked if he really believed himself all those times he said he didn't need a Stanley Cup to complete his career.
"No, I never believed that," he said. "I said it often. I said it many, many times.
"I remember one particular team, when I was out for the first year and my name came up, I guess a reporter asked the general manager, 'What about Pat Burns?' and the guy said, 'What did he ever win?'
"That right there was something that did spark me. So today, I'm glad to say, yeah, I've won something now. I've accomplished a lot in the years that I've been here. I have not always been easy with the way I get on in these press conferences but what I think is important is my team and how my team feels about me."