Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 350: Burnsy

Every Canadian has gotten a traffic ticket or worse from a cop who looked like Pat Burns. A face that said, “Seen it all. Heard it all. Nothing you’re gonna say or do will surprise me.”

In fact, Pat had been a motorcycle cop for a few years in Gatineau, Quebec before he found his true calling –- coaching hockey. And ironically, he was brought into the game by the same Hockey God, Wayne Gretzky, who would break his heart a decade later.

Burns began his coaching career with the Gretzky owned Hull Olympiques in 1984 and was hired as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens four years later, taking them to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season.

In 1992, Burns came to Toronto to coach the Maple Leafs becoming the match that sparked one of the most explosively joyous seasons in the team’s history.

At that point, hockey crazy Toronto had been without a Stanley Cup run for 25 years. The city had endured a quarter century of defeat and humiliation. Burns put an end to all that with the help of stars like Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin.

They got within a game of the final. A Canadian classic showdown with arch-rival Montreal stolen by a blatant missed call on the aforementioned Wayne Gretzky.

As devastating as the loss was to Leaf fans, Burns had given the city back its self respect and no man was more greatly loved among those wearing the Blue and White.

At the time of that Cup run, I was writing and producing “Top Cops” for CBS, a series that dramatized true crime stories. Doug Gilmour’s sister-in-law worked for us and his dog Harley used to come in with her of a morning and curl up on the couch in my office until Doug picked him up after practice.

That led to us calling Pat in to see if we could do one of his stories on the show.

I was expecting a tough, no nonsense intimidating guy. But the one who arrived was funny, personable and engaging. And while we wanted to tell the story of Pat going undercover in a Maximum security prison to bust a drug operation, he demurred, saying it wasn’t that big a deal.

Now even those unfamiliar with prisons knows how dangerous it must be for a police officer to be locked inside, unprotected amid a population where there’s a very good chance he could be recognized.

No matter how much we flattered and cajoled, you could see Burns gently but firmly dig in his heels and we realized that his past life was in the past and all that really mattered to him was the here and now.

A couple of years later, I was sitting behind the Leaf bench in LA as they were getting their butts handed to them by Gretzky’s LA Kings. I began berating him for something and he turned to give me the finger.

I don’t know if he recognized me or not, but Leaf Manager Cliff Fletcher was sitting nearby and when Burns was fired two days later, I concluded that Fletcher had reasoned, “Gee, if one of those idiot fans in LA can see we have a coaching problem, maybe we do have a coaching problem.”

But my intrusion on Burns career didn’t slow him down. He moved on to Boston where he won his third “NHL Coach of the Year” trophy. And not long after he took the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup.

Burns passed away from Cancer in 2010. And tomorrow he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, a city that still loves him more than any coach the Leafs have had before or since.

No matter what some idiot fan in LA might have to say.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

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