From Ottawa, Canada — The best coaches are remembered not for the Xs and O's they drew, but for preparing their players for games — and, indirectly, for life. Lessons they instill on a rink, basketball court or any other field of play will influence their athletes long after the details of a game or season have been forgotten.
Pat Burns, who died of lung cancer Friday at 58 after fighting several forms of the disease, will be remembered for much more than the 501 wins he recorded while coaching Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey.
Burns was an outstanding defensive coach and a difference-maker whose gruff exterior didn't hide his intelligence and insight. The former police officer wore his authority well, using it to mold kids into men and men into better men. For his success, he became the only person voted the NHL's coach of the year three times, and with three different teams.
Minnesota Wild center John Madden, who played for Burns' 2003 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, barely suppressed tears when he heard about his former coach's death.
"It was just a great time we had in Jersey, and he was probably the best coach I ever had," Madden told reporters in a voice described as quivering.
Burns was Joe Thornton's first NHL coach, with Boston in the 1997-98 season. Burns played him only 55 games and Thornton wasn't always happy, but he came to value weekly sessions with Burns and the coach's wisdom.
"He definitely made me grow as a player and as a person," Thornton told the San Jose Mercury News, "and I definitely owe him a lot from the days back then to now."
Kings Coach Terry Murray knew Burns as a rival during the years both coached Eastern Conference teams. Murray was an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers when Burns was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004.
"He didn't seem right behind the bench in that series. You just sensed something was off," Murray said. "In his career he knew great success, obviously. We lost a real good hockey person."
Burns' cancer spread to his liver and lung and he declined further treatment in January 2009. He died as he lived — on his terms.
"When you win a championship together there is a special bond," said retired Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer, another member of Burns' 2003 championship team. "It's very sad but he fought long and hard, just like you'd expect him to."
Burns' funeral will take place Nov. 29 in Montreal, but NHL teams began honoring him last weekend. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who received an encouraging note from Burns before the season began, inscribed Burns' initials on his mask. The Devils, who employed him as a scout, will wear a black patch on their uniforms with his initials embroidered in white. The uniforms will be auctioned for the benefit of La Maison Aube Lumiere, the cancer hospice where Burns died.
NHL coaches are doing their part by raising funds for the construction of the Pat Burns Arena on the campus of Stanstead College in Quebec, Canada. Murray said Coach John Tortorella of the New York Rangers is spearheading the effort.
"He was adamant that's the right thing to do," Murray said. "It's a project he'll see through."
As a coach who taught life lessons on the ice, Burns surely would have approved.
The New York Islanders looked worse than usual when they revoked the credential of blogger Chris Botta after he criticized management. Botta, a former Islanders public relations executive, oversees a blog supported by AOL Fanhouse. He was among the few regular sources for news on a team that has fallen off the radar in New York. The Islanders need a thicker skin — and a better team.
The NHL and the NHL Players Assn. announced they had raised and donated more than $1.1 million to cancer organizations through the Hockey Fights Cancer campaign they ran in October. It's too much to hope they'll cooperate as amicably during collective bargaining talks.