I first talked to Pat Burns – alone – on August 9, 1988, the day of the Gretzky trade. Burns hadn’t coached an NHL game yet – he had been hired by the Habs just two months earlier – but had worked for Gretzky while coaching Hull in QMJHL. It was the middle of the summer, a lot of people were away from their desks (including, famously, Red Fisher) and I couldn’t get Gretzky or the man who was beginning to shake up the NHL – Bruce McNall. So I called Pat.
He shared some wonderful anecdotes about Gretzky as an owner. He talked about how hockey would grow tremendously in southern California. But he was also quick to point out that the Oilers were still a great hockey team.
I remember thinking how good a story teller he was. And wondering if we could ever put those talents to use at CJAD where I was working almost every shift imaginable.
Covering the Habs as a reporter I liked Pat immensely. He was my kind of guy – gruff, brutally honest, no b.s. and in your face. But he also had a playful side which many fans and media types never saw. If you caught him at his favourite Montreal watering hole – The Old Dublin (Hurley’s did not arrive until Pat was in Toronto) – you would have seen it. And Pat loved his music.
Burns guided the Habs to the Stanley Cup Final in his rookie season. But the Flames avenged a Final loss to the Habs three years earlier by becoming the only visiting team to win the Stanley Cup on Forum ice. Lanny MacDonald clinched the victory with the final goal of his Hall of Fame career. Mike Vernon outplayed Patrick Roy. Al MacInnis did the same to Chris Chelios. It was the Flames’ turn. And Montreal hockey fans knew it. They won the enduring respect and admiration of Calgary coach Terry Crisp and his players as they saluted the new champs with a long ovation before leaving the building to discover the startling news that the Montreal Expos had acquired star southpaw Mark Langston from the Seattle Mariners for three young pitchers – Gene Harris, Brian Holman and Randy Johnson. It was May 25, 1989.
What I remember most from a Canadiens perspective – other than a Ryan Walter goal in double overtime to give the Habs a short lived 2-1 series lead (and their last win of the season) – was Claude Lemieux lying on the ice for the umpteenth time (As Michael Farber once wrote: Lemieux had two positions – right wing and prone). It was early in the series at the Saddledome. Habs trainer Gaetan Lefebvre was about to hop over the boards to assist Lemieux but Burns pulled him back. Like Lemieux’s teammates – let alone opponents and officials – Burns had seen enough. He thought Lemieux was embarrassing the sport, and more importantly, the Canadiens jersey. Most of us in the media understood and respected what Burns did. But Rejean Tremblay saw things differently.
Tremblay, in his role as the outspoken sports columnist at La Presse (or as the French like to say, so beautifully, un provacateur) saw a cause close to his separatist heart. Tremblay felt Burns had been picking on Lemieux. And chose the Stanley Cup Final to humiliate the young winger. He wrote a scathing column which suggested that Burns was subconsciously biased against French players. You can imagine how the hot headed Burns reacted. His captain, Bob Gainey told a CJAD audience – through me – that Tremblay ought to move out of the sports section and into the op-ed page. Tremblay was kicked off the charter (at a time when most members of the media could still take advantage of the perk). The first round of an ongoing battle with, eventually, almost every member of the media, was underway.
In his first couple of years as coach Burns lived a couple of blocks from the Forum at Manoir Le Moyne. They had a cool piano bar where many well known Montrealers would go to unwind in a less public setting than the bars on Crescent Street or in the downtown core. Among the regulars was CJAD Drive Host Jack Finnegan. I worked with Jack doing sports updates but what I enjoyed the most was my first update of the afternoon at 4:25 when Jack and I would have a conversation about the day in sports but which would often veer off into some other topic. We always had a minute or two to chat before I got on the air and again when I was done. It was during one of those brief off air chats – after I had played a clip of Burns going off about something (much to Jack’s delight) – that I mentioned how great it would be if we could get Pat on the air with us on a regular basis. Jack said he’d bring it up with Pat the next time he had a beer with him at Le Manoir. And that’s how The Pat Burns Show was born.
I hosted the show every Sunday morning. Pat would walk the three blocks – sometimes with his son – to the station on Fort Street. He usually got there 30-45 minutes before air time. And would stick around for another 20-30 minutes after it was done, often just to get something off his chest. Nothing was out of bounds for him – even the subject of homosexuality in hockey (“It could never happen in the NHL. The player would never be accepted” was his stance (Remember this was 1991-92). Off the air he forcefully shot down rumours that one of his own players was gay, cracking “I wish I had as much success with the ladies at the same age (as the player)”). Pat had one rule – no phone calls. The Sunday morning host was Dave Fisher who wanted to include some callers. We worked around it by telling people early in the AM that we would take the best questions from listeners and play them back for Pat live when he was on the air. This was still, by radio station standards, the pre-internet era. There were no computers in the studio. We set up a phone line so fans could call-in and have their questions taped for playback. We quickly developed solid on air chemistry. I remember Herb Zurkowsky telling me that Burns was far and away at his best with the media during his own show (why wouldn’t he be?). Herb said that he had given up trying to get his own quotes and merely took notes while listening every Sunday for a subsequent notes column he wrote for the Monday Gazette. More than a few media types grumbled. Sensing this Pat went out of his way, on occasion, to cut me short during a post game media session or offer a terse reply. We never spoke of this but I knew perfectly well what he was doing. And he knew that I knew.
As much as I enjoyed the on air banter I couldn’t wait for the segment (20-30 minutes if I remember correctly) to end. That’s when Pat would fill in the blanks. For me. But as his on air persona grew (and they were listening everywhere, especially at CKAC where Michel Tremblay would eventually hire Pat, but not until after Burns had lost his job in Toronto.) so did his problems behind the bench. By his third season Pat had pissed off almost everybody. There were calls for Serge Savard to hire a lighter touch. But he stood by his coach. There were issues in 1991-92 but the Habs actually improved their win total from 38 to 41. But following back to back exits in the second round of the playoffs – the spring of ’92 would tell the eventual story. Sensing his coach’s grip on the team had loosened considerably, Savard brought back Chris Nilan for an added touch of leadership and another ally for the coach. In the first round the Habs were given a scare by the Hartford Whalers who forced them into double overtime before Russ Courtnall’s memorable goal (after the Whalers’ Yvon Corriveau hit the goalpost on a breakaway) sent the Habs into Round Two against the Bruins (or the Adams Division Final as they celebrate on all those Division Champions banners that hang in Boston).
The Habs should have beaten Boston. The Bruins were without Cam Neely. But they were a tighter group than the Canadiens. Montreal hosted the first two games at the Forum. They lost 6-4 in the opener and the sense of urgency to win the second game was palpable. By the time the Bruins finally won, 3-2 in overtime, it seemed like the only mystery remaining was whether Boston would be able to wrap up the series at home. Burns’ mood, already somewhat dark after four full seasons of sparring with people he didn’t much like to begin with, turned sour and angry. Between Games Three (Boston won 2-1) and Four, The Two Solitudes were on full display in a luxury Boston hotel bar. I was among the group of English media (along with Randy Tieman, Michael Whelan and at least a couple of others) on the far side of the large bar while the Francophone crowd – which included Rejean Tremblay and Jean Page, among others, was set up directly opposite us, closer to the lobby side. The Habs and the media (at reduced rates) were staying at this place. I knew Pat would show. He wanted to talk. Somebody had tipped off other media types that Burns was supposed to be meeting his “pal” Melnick after dinner. It suddenly got very tense. Burns stared at what must have now appeared to him to be an impromptu press briefing with the added toxic mix of too much alcohol. He glared at me. I shrugged. He knew I wouldn’t have called everybody in. I waved him over. “What the fuck?” was the first thing he said. I tried to loosen the mood, “It’s a hotel bar, Pat. You could have picked a better spot. But anyway, Tremblay would have followed you all the way to Harvard.” He said a few more things about a couple of reporters in particular but eventually settled down. Suddenly, playful Pat emerged. He told a couple of dirty jokes. He performed impressions of fellow NHL coaches (he even took requests). He told us how banged up his team was – especially Kirk Muller and Mathieu Schneider. I turned to Randy and said, “Does this sound like a guy who’s worried about his job?”. But a few minutes later the scowl returned. Serge Savard was having a drink with the French writers. Serge had motioned for Pat to meet him at a table behind the bar. “We’ll talk when we get back to Montreal”, said Pat as he headed over to meet Serge.
The next night, the Canadiens battled but were shutout 2-0 to lose the series in four straight games. The bus ride to the airport was deathly quiet. But it got worse at the airport where there was no charter waiting for them. It seemed to take an excruciatingly long time for the plane to arrive. I got as far away from the travelling party as possible. Ronald Corey was on the trip. It was uncomfortable. I kept my eyes on Pat. There was no communication with anybody. He started pacing. Eventually he made his way to where I was sitting, on the floor leaning against a wall. “Can you fucking believe this” he muttered. “He won’t even look at me”. HE was Corey.
The phone rang in my Tupper Street home about 11 AM. It was Pat. He was upbeat. He had a meeting with Savard. He claimed Serge had promised him more of a say in the make up of the team for the 1992-93 season. There were players he clearly no longer wanted to coach. He said Savard was going to get back to him after he went through the exit meetings with the players. I felt good about the conversation but it certainly didn’t jive with what I saw at Logan. I wondered if Savard could actually talk Corey into keeping Pat for a fifth season. But by then, unlike most members of the media, I was really in the dark. I couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see what was quite apparent.
The next day: The phone rang earlier this time. “It’s over” said Pat. I realized a lot more was lost at that moment than Pat’s job as coach of the Canadiens. “Serge can’t trade everybody”.
It wasn’t just a good chunk of the media that wanted Pat gone. His players had been whipped enough.
I wouldn’t give back any of the time or conversations I had with Pat Burns. But I learned a valuable lesson which I hope I have applied to this day – respect the people whose job is yours to critique but never get too close that you can’t see the big picture.
You know the rest of the Pat Burns story.
I really thought Pat was going to be the coach to end the Stanley Cup drought in Toronto. A Habs – Maple Leafs final in ’93 would have been a circus, with Pat as ringmaster. He came close the next year too but it was the Rangers who snapped an even longer drought (50 years). An early playoff exit the following year set him up for a fall in year four.
Burns in Boston. Sounded great. Seemed like a perfect fit – tough Irish cop and all. He did an amazing job with a mediocre to less than mediocre Bruins team, winning his third Jack Adams award in year one. But again, by year four, he was gone.
The son of a gun had coached in three of the Original Six (with apologies to Keith Olbermann) cities. What could he possibly do for an encore? Return to where it all started? (Yes Pat Burns was ready to return to Montreal as head coach, as silly a concept as it seemed at the time.) That wasn’t going to happen even as some of Pat’s former Montreal sparring partners had softened their stance as they listened to him – in French – on a daily basis and had figured out that guy actually knew his way around an NHL rink. Several lobbied hard for him. But the job went to Michel Therrien.
If Pat’s next stop couldn’t be Chicago or Detroit or New York, New Jersey was the next best thing. A franchise run by a man who saw success by running things the Montreal way, with more than a nod to legendary Habs GM Sam Pollack. Lou Lamariello was repaid immediately. There would be no heartbreak at playoff time for Burns in New Jersey. But there would be plenty of heartache right around the corner.