News broke last week that former Devils coach Pat Burns, who led the team to the 2003 Stanley Cup championship, was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, class of 2014. Burns, who passed away in 2010 after a five year battle with cancer, would have been considered a Hall of Famer in most hockey fans’ minds minus the Stanley Cup win in 2003. The fact that he topped such a wonderful career with the one goal that eluded him all of his years in the National Hockey League was something that, looking back on it, most hockey fans can agree was icing on the cake of a truly remarkable man’s life.
Pat Burns did not have the same career path as most other NHL coaches. He never played professionally and spent the first ten or fifteen years or so of his adult working life as a police officer in Gatineau, Quebec. He had a sharp mind for hockey and used to analyze televised games the next day for his fellow officers before and after work. His co-workers could tell that he was not watching hockey the same way they were. He was almost preparing himself for a career that he did not know was even an option at the time.
After coaching local youth hockey in his spare time, Burns would move on to the job that would get him noticed among the hockey elite: he was hired as an assistant with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hull Olympiques (now the Gatineau Olympiques – Anthony Brodeur’s team in the QMJHL). Burns juggled the assistant coach’s job with his police duties until Wayne Gretzky became owner of the QMJHL team in 1984. Gretzky immediately hired Burns as the head coach, Burns quit his day job, and a legendary career was launched. Burns coached the major junior team until 1987 when the Montreal Canadiens came calling. Looking for someone to take over the reins of their American Hockey League affiliate, the Sherbrooke Canadiens, the team looked to the young Burns for the 1987-88 season.
The following year, Burns was moved up to the big club when the Habs fired Jean Perron, the coach who had led them to a Cup in 1986. Burns would win the Jack Adams Award (his first of three) as coach of the year that season after leading the Canadiens to the 1989 Stanley Cup Final (ultimately losing to the Calgary Flames). Burns spent four years in Montreal, making the playoffs each season, getting out of the first round, only to lose in the division final each of the three years after going to the Cup Final.
After leaving the pressure cooker that is Montreal, Burns immediately took over the job of rehabilitating the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1992-93 season. His first season there, the Leafs would make the playoffs after failing to qualify for the two seasons prior. He would then lead them all the way to the 1993 Campbell Conference Final, losing to Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings and denying him a chance to faceoff with his former employers, the Montreal Canadiens, in the Stanley Cup Final. The following year the Leafs also made the final four, losing in the now-named Western Conference Final to the Vancouver Canucks. Burns would lead the Maple Leafs for one and a half seasons more (getting bounced in the first round of the 1995 playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks) before being fired in 1996. Along the way, he picked up another Jack Adams Award in 1993.
His next stop was Boston, when the Bruins hired him in 1997 for the upcoming 1997-98 sesaon. The Bruins had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 1995 (by the eventual Cup champion Devils) and 1996 (by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Panthers) and failed to make the playoffs at all in 1997. In 1998, Burns’ first year behind the bench, the Bruins were again eliminated in the first round, this time by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Capitals. Burns would earn his final Jack Adams Award that year for his turnaround of the Bruins, but success would not be as easy to come by for him with this Original Six team. The following year, Burns coached the team past the first round of the playoffs, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in six games only to lose in the next round in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2000 and eight games into the following season, Burns was fired.
In 2002, he joined the New Jersey Devils for what would be his final coaching job. That season, 2002-03, the Devils finished 46-20-10, good enough for 108 points and first place in the Atlantic Division. When playoff time came around, the second-seeded Devils would square off with Burns’ former employer, the Boston Bruins, eliminating them in 5 games. The Devils would do the same to Tampa Bay in the second round; eliminating the Lightning four games to one. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Devils would meet the top-seeded President’s Trophy (best overall regular season record) winning Ottawa Senators. This was a sort of home-coming for Burns, as Gatineau is located geographically very close to Ottawa. The Devils won the opening game in Ottawa 3-2 in overtime. The Senators would get the split at home by taking the next game 4-1. The first game at the Continental Airlines Arena would see the Devils prevail in a defensive duel, 1-0. The Devils then pushed Ottawa to the brink of elimination by winning the next game, 5-2. The Sens then took the next two games, winning 3-1 at Corel Centre and then topping the Devils on their home ice, 2-1 in overtime. Game seven was set for May 23, 2003 at Corel Centre. Jamie Langenbrunner scored two goals, while Jeff Friesen scored the series-clincher with two minutes left and the Devils were on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and Coach Burns would be appearing for the second time in his career. The Devils opponents in the Final would be the upstart Western Conference Champion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
The series opened on May 27 at Continental Airlines Arena with the Devils winning 3-0. They quickly took a two games to zero lead when they won game two by the same score. Anaheim would win game three 3-2 in overtime and game four 1-0 (also in OT) to sweep the two games at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Back in East Rutherford for game five, the Devils routed the Ducks 6-3 and it was back to California for game six, won by the Ducks 5-2, setting up game seven in New Jersey. The Devils would take that game by a score of 3-0, winning the Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils and making Pat Burns a champion.
Burns would coach the Devils for one more season, before stepping down in 2004 due to his bout with cancer. He remained a special assignment coach for the Devils. Pat Burns was a defense-first coach who very much fit the mold of what the Devils had been throughout their glory years. He was known as an intimidating and intense man behind the bench, but most of all, Pat Burns was a winner. He got the most out of his players and they reaped the rewards because of it. Now, Pat Burns can add Hockey Hall of Famer to his long list of credentials.
Note: some of the research material for this article comes from the book Coach: The Pat Burns Story by Toronto sports writer Rosie DiManno. It is a fantastic read and, if you have not already done so, please check it out.