It’s highly appropriate that the Leafs and Canadiens face each other on Saturday night in Montreal. Prior to the game, there will be a wonderful moment to remember a storied individual with both franchises, the late Pat Burns. While on this earth, Pat was denied the honour of a Hockey Hall of Fame induction. Saturday night will be a small measure of respect for someone who deserved so much more.
Just moments after Burns’ passing on Friday, hockey lovers in the Twitterverse remembered Burns as “the best coach the Leafs ever had.” Hap Day, Dick Irvin Sr. and Punch Imlach might have something to say about that. But Burns was a classic. And he was a successful National Hockey League coach for one main reason: he knew and understood people. He knew them inside and out. Being a police officer and a detective gave Burns a unique insight into the human animal. And that quality in coaches, above all, is crucial.
NHL history is rife with head coaches who have absolutely no clue how to deal with players. Oh, they know the game…but the interpersonal skills are non-existent. Burns got it. He understood the delicate balance between being a tactician and an amateur psychologist – making the players on his bench the best they could be.
He sure did that in Toronto, where he took his Leafs to the 1993 and 1994 Campbell Conference Final. And he did it with just-slightly-above-average hockey teams. After Doug Gilmour and a red-hot Felix Potvin, Burns’ 1992-93 squad was really just a bunch of very hard-working players. Guys like Wendel Clark and Peter Zezel and Dave Andreychuk and Glenn Anderson had some skill…but they combined it with intense desire. And that internal fire was stoked by Pat Burns.
Seven-game series wins over Detroit and St. Louis pushed Burns’ Leafs into a series against Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. That was a tough series to lose. The next season, Burns’ Leafs’ squad was again not a first-place club. But Burns pushed all the right emotional buttons in series against Chicago and an upstart San Jose squad. In the Conference Final against Vancouver, the Canucks got better goaltending from Kirk McLean than Potvin was able to provide Toronto.
Fortunately for Burns, he would earn his Stanley Cup ring in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils. His legacy in Toronto is that of a man who brought Leafs’ fans their most joyous moments since 1967. In early 1996, after the Leafs had endured an eight-game losing streak (are you paying attention, Ron Wilson?), Burns knew he’d lost the room and was let go by Cliff Fletcher.
But, clearly, his legacy has endured with Leafs’ fans. And it will forever. Now he’ll have a chance to reminisce about it with Zezel and Roger Neilson.