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Hockey royalty gathers in Montreal for Pat Burns funeral

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, left, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attend the funeral of former NHL coach Pat Burns in Montreal, Monday, November 29, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes

They were sitting in the coach's office in East Rutherford, N.J., chatting amiably, when then-Devils bench boss Pat Burns interrupted his star goalie and said "you should go and sit in the (dressing) room, I have to go in there and blow a fuse now."

And so it was that Burns laid waste to the Devils' room, breaking sticks, berating players and looking every inch the incandescent, hard-nosed ex-cop he was.

"I was just shaking my head, trying not to laugh, and thinking 'man, he's got it all figured out'," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. "We won the (Stanley) Cup that year."

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Brodeur told the tale, which can only be described as classic Burns, on the steps of Montreal's stately Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, where hundreds of well-wishers gathered to bid one last farewell to the former coach of the Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.

Burns died on Nov. 19 after a six-year battle with cancer; such was the importance of his first and only Stanley Cup that the urn containing his ashes was a replica of the fabled trophy.

About 1,000 people, including former players, ex-police colleagues, politicians, members of the public and the entire Devils team and front office, packed the cathedral.

"Not bad for a tête-carrée (square-head) from St. Henri," said his cousin and long-time agent Robin Burns, referencing the Québécois colloquialism for Anglo.

Patrick Jonathan Burns was born 58 years ago, the youngest of six children, in the rough-and-tumble working-class Montreal neighbourhood of St. Henri, and would doubtless have chuckled at the idea his funeral would be officiated by a full-fledged Cardinal - Montreal Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte, who is a fervent Habs fan. The service featured several heartfelt tributes, and more than one joke about Burns, a mischievous and fun-loving sort whose gruff and forbidding exterior could never quite hide his warm, humourous side - at least not to those who knew him best.

"Two weeks ago I called him and asked how he was doing, and he said 'to hell with how I'm feeling, I just watched you play,' " said Devils president Lou Lamoriello, who delivered one of the eulogies.

Motorcycling buddy Christopher Wood recalled Burns musing about making one last ride on his beloved Harley - he was badly weakened by cancer - and when a friend tried to talk him out of it, he retorted "what's the worst that can happen? That I crash and die?"

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The mourners included Quebec Premier Jean Charest, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, hockey executives Brian Burke and Rick Dudley, coach Claude Julien, former playing stars Doug Gilmour, Raymond Bourque, Patrick Roy, Kirk Muller, and Mike Gartner, to name but a few.

Several mentioned the Hockey Hall of Fame's decision earlier this year not to induct the three-time coach of the year - a sore point with his friends.

Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille first encountered Burns when he was an assistant coach with the Hull Olympiques, and remembered an intimidating character.

In those days Burns hadn't yet quit his day job as a police detective in Gatineau, Que., which sometimes required him to grow a bushy beard for undercover operations - "we were all pretty scared of him," Robitaille laughed.

But there was more to Burns than his well-known authoritarian streak.

"He was just a good man, he was genuine, he was honest," said former Canadien and Maple Leaf Shayne Corson, who likened Burns to "a father figure."

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That from a player who once had to call Burns from jail after he and a couple of teammates had a late-night scrape with the law in Winnipeg.

"That's one of the times we didn't really get the answer we wanted . . . but eventually he calmed down," Corson smiled. "We were hockey players and he was our coach, but he also cared about us off the ice as people."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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