There are few things in life more devastating than watching cancer slowly steal away a loved one. There are also few things more beautiful or inspiring than the emergence of the human spirit when facing death head on.
I found it difficult to watch the coverage of former NHL coach Pat Burns speaking at a special event on Friday in Quebec’s Eastern Townships – without sobbing, anyway. A new hockey arena is being built in Stanstead to replace an aging facility. The Pat Burns Arena will serve the surrounding towns along the Quebec-Vermont border and is expected to be completed by 2011. Sadly, Burns will most likely never see it open.
Burns has been quietly battling terminal lung cancer. It is his third fight with the disease – he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004 when his New Jersey Devils were in the first round of the NHL playoffs. He fought liver cancer in 2005. This time, as you are probably aware, he is forgoing treatment.
I have terrific memories of Burns as a coach for the Montreal Canadiens when I still cheered for the Habs as a teen. I loved his burly presence, his bilingualism and the fact that he used to be a cop. My anti-Habs friends would snarl “Pat Burns eats worms!” but I would pay them no mind. He lead the Canadiens to four playoff appearances, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in his first coaching year when they fell to the Calgary Flames (oh, Lanny MacDonald and your playoff beard to end all playoff beards!)
Then Burns moved on to Toronto. I was a Habs fan during the 1992-1993 season, but everyone I knew watched – and cheered for – the Leafs when they faced the Kings in the Campbell Conference Final. Even I was pissed that the Leafs were knocked out (it’s YOUR FAULT, GRETZKY! YOU ROBBED CANADA OF THE GREATEST SERIES EVER!) Almost anyone who was a fan of the Buds in the early 90s would tell you that it was the playoff run of a lifetime. The talent on the ice deserves most of the credit (Clark, Potvin, Gilmour – SWOON!) but Burns was the perfect conductor for that orchestra.
Burns eventually wore thin in Toronto, but he still had an excellent run with the Leafs. After a nearly four season stint in Boston, Burns joined the Devils behind the bench and proved why he won all those Jack Adams trophies (he’s a three-time winner, by the way) He brought the Cup back to New Jersey in 2003, capping off an excellent season in which the Devils took 1st in the Atlantic Division and finished with 108 points.
A year later, his health – and family – took precedence over the game he loved.
Today, Burns seems like a shadow of his fiery self. The girth has disappeared and his hair is much thinner. Again, it was hard to watch.
Cancer can decimate the body, but it’s no match for the human spirit. Burns is acutely aware that his time on Earth is almost up. It is equal parts heartbreaking and amazing to know that he has accepted this. But he remains extremely proud of this honour and of the legacy he will leave behind for future hockey players attending the private school in that community and those players in the surrounding municipalities. He said he hopes that the arena would one day be a launching pad for a future Mario or Gretzky.
I think it could also be a great place for a future Jack Adams-and-Stanley Cup-winning coach to get his (or her?) start.
At the news conference, Burns apologized for sounding so quiet: “I don’t have the thundering voice I used to have to get players going on the ice anymore.”
I don’t know about that, Pat. I think you still have the power to command a room – or a rink. Take care. We’re thinking of you.