Why Pat Burns was one of a kind
He was one of a kind, a tough-talking cop-turned-coach, whose passion for the game was unbridled and uncensored.
Perfectly bilingual in French and English, Burns made an impact in both of Canada's Original Six towns, equally winning over hearts and minds in Montreal and Toronto, and that's not an easy feat to pull off in those two vastly different hockey cultures.
He was the first NHL coach I ever covered as a young reporter for The Canadian Press in 1995-96, which would turn out to be his dramatic last season in Toronto. And I won't ever forget being in New Jersey in June 2003, when Burns won the Stanley Cup, the coach bursting with emotion at finally winning the big one.
A three-time Jack Adams Award winner in Montreal, Toronto and Boston, I think it's hard to argue against the fact he'll be forever remembered as the coach who brought a lunch-bucket Maple Leafs team to back-to-back, thrilling Final Four appearances in 1993 and 1994.
Doug Gilmour was likely one of the favorite players Burns ever coached. The Burns-Gilmour era in Toronto in the early-1990s remains a favorite for any Leafs fan under the age of 40. At the source of those heart-stopping, back-to-back trips to the conference finals was the gutsy Gilmour on the ice and the fiery Burns behind the bench.
I spoke with Gilmour last spring when Burns' third battle with cancer took a turn for the worst, and he described Burns as a "heart-and-soul guy and that's how he coached."
"He was very emotional behind the bench," Gilmour then told ESPN.com. "He was a leader back there for us. But we knew going into a game that you better be ready as a player with him."
Gilmour remembered Burns taking him out for lunch upon Gilmour's arrival in Toronto.
"We had a couple of beers together," he said. "He explained what he wanted. He was very upfront. He was phenomenal. There were no games, and that's what you want as a coach. He tells it like it is."
Make no mistake about it, Gilmour cherished playing for Burns, but it wasn't a walk in the park for players. He demanded a lot from them.
"He was a players' coach, but he was also very intimidating," said Gilmour. "But he didn't have to say anything to me. He just looked at me the day after a game and I would look back and say, 'I know, I'll be better.' He just had that police-officer mentality."
Burns' postgame news conferences at the old Maple Leaf Gardens were things of beauty. You certainly weren't bored.
"He always deflected any issue away from us," said Gilmour. "When he talked to you guys [the media], he always put it on himself. He never pinpointed anybody, he never blamed anybody. He really took care of his players. You guys saw how he was with his hard-ass side, but away from that, he wasn't like that."
He was just a great guy, Gilmour said before hanging up the phone.
And he'll be sorely missed.