COACH is the story of the three time NHL coach of the year award winner, Pat Burns.
In 1992, when I was 8 years old, I came home from hanging out with my friends and proudly proclaimed that I liked hockey and that I was now a Montreal Canadiens fan. My Uncle got wind of this and sat me down and said, “No, you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.”
And so began a lifetime of pain and suffering.
Funnily enough, at the time, that was probably the best time to be a Leafs fan. The team had been stacked with names like Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Felix Potvin, Dave Andreychuk and Nikolai Borschevsky. The coach behind the bench? Pat Burns. Talk about a memorable bunch of guys!
In 2012, nearly two years removed from his untimely passing, longtime Toronto Star journalist Rosie DiManno tackled the life and career of Pat Burns in her book COACH. Burns, born into an Irish family in Montreal, spent his formative years around the game of hockey before embarking on a career as a police officer. There are some great stories about his time behind the badge including one where he solved a murder while working as a detective in Gatineau, Quebec.
While he devoted his professional life to law and order, he never fully let go his passion for coaching. His success behind the bench led him to a job coaching in the QMJHL for the Gatineau Olympique. When the Olympique were on the verge of collapse, they were given a lifeline by Wayne Gretzky when he decided to buy the team and keep Burns on as coach. Gretzky saw the potential in Burns and wanted to keep him in the game by fostering a path to a job as bench boss in the NHL.
The book follows Burns’ career from the minor leagues to the majors as he would go on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and finally, the New Jersey Devils where he would ultimately win the Stanley Cup in2003. The bulk of the book focuses on his tenure as head coach in Montreal and Toronto, where he arguably had his most successful years (Stanley Cup, notwithstanding).
I enjoyed reading about his relationships with his players and how he could often be a tough coach to play for, but treated you well if you earned his respect. His relationship with my all-time favorite player, Doug Gilmour, was a great one. Burns had so much respect for Dougie and often played him to the point of near exhaustion where Gilmour would need to be hooked up to an IV after those ultra-competitive games in the 1993 playoffs.
Because Pat was such an intensely private person and because the book was written after he had passed away, the book is missing that personal touch that I would have liked had he been involved. Although Rosie DiManno was a friend to Pat, it does feel very surface level in its approach despite DiManno doing the grunt work of tracking down and speaking with Burns’ friends, family and coworkers.
Hockey is a tough game to write about at times. There are some authors who do it beautifully and dramatically (Ken Dryden’s The Game), some approach it from a comedic standpoint (Sean McIndoe’s Down Goes Brown) and others just stick to surface level stuff like game recaps and blow-by-blow career retrospectives. Rosie DiManno’s Coach sort of hangs around in the latter category while offering glimpses into the preceding ones. While I did learn a lot about Pat Burns, it isn’t a book that will stick with me for years to come.