Pat Burns fought cancer as best as he could, but in the end, cancer beat him. He passed away today at the age of 58.
It's hard to say what hurt the heart more. His death or the day he was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. Either way, it's depressing.
He died at the prime of his career. He could have been effective as a coach for many more years. He would have coached until he was 70 years old. In fact, he wanted to coach, but teams did not want to hire him because of his health issues.
His hockey career died the day he was diagnosed with cancer.
By then, he knew it wasn't long until he died. He needed to coach hockey to enjoy life. He was born to do that, and once that was taken away from him, it must have been hard to enjoy the rest of his life. He was not known to have other hobbies outside of motorcycling.
There is a good reason that Joe Paterno wants to coach Penn State until he dies: Football is his life. He likes the camaraderie and the teaching that come with it. He's not used to doing other things, and he is not interested in anything else.
That was the case with Burns.
If Burns did not have cancer, he would have stayed on with the Devils for another few years. Devils boss Lou Lamoriello trusted him to maintain the team's high standard of play. There would not have been a merry-go-round of Devils coaches as we have seen in recent years.
Odds are, the Devils would have won a couple more championships under Burns. He was a presence on the bench. He knew how to be a good gameday coach by matching the right lines and having his players align properly on defense.
He knew how to push the right buttons when it came to players.
Guys may not have liked him as their boss, but they respected him. Coaching is all about earning respect, not being buddies with the players. The job of a coach is to hold guys accountable, and that's what Burns did.
The Devils are finding out how hard it is to find that good coach.
Claude Julien and Brent Sutter never could get the players' attention. Lamoriello tried to get the right coach in bringing Jacques Lemaire back, but that did not end well last year. John MacLean already lost the locker room after benching Ilya Kovalchuk last month.
People may think of him as a Stanley Cup coach in New Jersey, but he was a great coach before then. In sports, folks view coaches who win championships as great coaches. That shouldn't be the case. Burns did well in Montreal, Toronto and Boston.
When those three teams were bad, Burns built them up by having his guys play defense. He disciplined those guys well. He got the most out of less talent in those three cities.
His passion for the game was something else. His scowl and his brusque manner said it all. He had no tolerance for stupidity. He demanded excellence every game. That's how his teams became successful.
Did it wear out players in the end? Of course, but that's the life of a head coach. There's a reason not many pro head coaches last forever—players are independent, and they believe their way is better than the coach's way. Only way a coach stays on is if he keeps winning championships.
Even the great Scotty Bowman was not immune to it. He had his issues with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, and he knew it was time for him to go after a couple of years. That came when he won the Stanley Cup as the Penguins head coach.
As the saying goes: Coaches are hired to be fired.
It happens to everyone, so there's no shame about Burns being fired. He was good enough for other teams to want his services. He made an impression with Lamoriello for a long time, and he received a chance to achieve what he wanted to do in winning a Stanley Cup in New Jersey.
If you want proof of the impression Burns made in his career, look no further than the list of former players and coaches who paid their respects when the news came out.
Odds are, no one will hear about him on ESPN. After all, he coaches hockey. The four-letter network makes it a point not to talk puck, and that goes back to when they actually had hockey coverage several years ago.
Don't expect WFAN and 1050 ESPN Radio to honor Burns. Most of the talkies wouldn't even know who he is. They are too preoccupied with football, Derek Jeter and Cliff Lee to pay a tribute to a fine man.
If anyone wants to listen to hockey talk about Burns, watch the NHL Network or turn to XM Radio or The Fan 590 in Toronto. That's an insult to Devils fans. Burns won a championship here, yet no one in New York or New Jersey cares.
Burns will not get a front-page tribute in the New York papers. In fact, there won't even be a story about him in the New York Post or New York Daily News. The Record and Newark Star-Ledger will write a short piece on him, and that's it.
This does not do Burns any justice. It's sad. Even if he got along with the writers or coached a long time here, it wouldn't matter.
Fortunately, the Devils get it. They will honor him in their home game Monday night. There may not be a long ceremony. That may happen later this year, but he will get a tribute.
Devils fans will be emotional, for sure. They know what he brought to the organization. They have nothing but great things to say, based on reading message boards today and in the brief Burns era.
There's no question the memorial service will be a great one. It's a time to reflect on the great things he did for the sport.
It's too bad he won't be alive when he is in the Hall of Fame. Odds are he probably won't be in the Hall anyway, but he should be. His work in Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey is good enough for him to be there.
That's the only regret he would have had in his life, but that's not going to ruin a great career.
Hockey lost a great man and a great coach, but the Lord gained back a successful man He created.