Michael Farber, now of Sports Illustrated but then of The Gazette, published this profile on June 4, 1988 of then-Canadiens coach Pat Burns.
The staircase to the apartment at 819 Laporte Ave. goes straight
up. The stairs are purposeful, direct stairs, stairs that get you
where you want to go, not like the winding, meandering outdoor
staircases in nearby Griffintown. This is St. Henri, a direct kind
of place. This is the first home of Pat Burns, a direct kind of
“Somewhere on these stairs,” Burns said, “I’ll bet my name is still
No name can be found, but then going home always carries certain
risks. Things are the same. Things are different. The triplex next
door sold for $190,000 last year and, if you had pooled the wealth
of the people on the block in 1952 when Alfred Burns brought the
youngest of his six children home from the hospital, you wouldn’t
have come up with anything close to $190,000. There was no
doctor’s office on the street, and if there had been, the shingle
wouldn’t have had a name that wasn’t immediately identifiable as
French or English. The city of Montreal has cut down some trees in
St. Henri Park across the street, but the statue of Jacques
Cartier atop the fountain still is there. Smart fellow, Cartier.
Since 1893 he has pointed towards Westmount.
And a chair still sits outside on the small balcony at 819 Laporte,
which is where Louise Geraldeau Burns would sit and watch her son
play in the park to make sure he wouldn’t get into trouble.
“We’d play around that fountain,” Burns was saying yesterday during
a walk through his old neighborhood. “We’d jump in the fountain,
and the cops would kick us out. They’d drive around the block, and
we’d jump in again.” Burns was a policeman for 16 years. He has
the face and the soul of a cop. If he saw any irony in his story
of childhood fountain-hopping and authority-flouting, he did not
“This is the park where Ti-Cas and I would go at it,” he said.
“Ti-Cas used to steal my bicycle. We used to go at it almost every
day. I guess he had a name, but I didn’t know what it was. He used
to wear a little baseball cap all the time, so he was nicknamed
Ti-Cas. I’d say, ‘Mom, Ti-Cas stole my bike again.’ She’d say,
‘Well, go get it.’ So I’d go, and me and Ti-Cas would get into a
battle. He lived on the other side of the park. That’s all I
remember of him.”
Who was your best friend?
Pat and Ti-Cas spoke English together. Until the age of 16, Burns
understood French but did not speak it. When you have been hired
as the new coach of the Canadiens in a city that mainlines
language, what tongue you speak – and when you first spoke it – is
So this is the story:
Burns, who speaks an eloquent street French, did not learn the
language until he moved to Gatineau, near Ottawa, when he was 16.
“My father was Irish right to the bone,” Burns said as if no
further explanation was necessary.
Even when he joined the Gatineau police force after a year with the
Ottawa police, his French was limited. “When I joined, I had a lot
of trouble with French,” he said. “How was I hired? You have to
understand they were looking for guys then. It’s not like now when
everybody wants a cop job because of the pay and the security.
Sixteen, 18 years ago, people were willing to go work in a plant
or a mill. In 1970 I was making $39 a week, clear.”
Insp. Jacques Lamarche of the Gatineau police said Burns gained the
respect of his fellow cops when he began filling out his reports
in French. Burns said a specific incident sparked a change: “One
time in Gatineau there was a land slide and a couple of workers
died. I was the first cop on the scene, and I made out my report
in English. We were in Montreal at a hearing and Michel Chartrand,
the great syndicaliste, who was wondering what workers were doing
getting killed in the first place, took a look at the report and
took a look at me and wondered what the hell was going on.
‘You’ve got a fleur-de-lys on your shoulder. What the hell is
this?’ He was right. I decided to do something about it. French is
a hard language to write but I took courses. I made myself do it.
I still don’t think I’d send a letter to the Prime Minister in
French because he’d wonder who the hell was this guy, but I
learned French and can write it OK. I’m pig-headed. When I get
something in mind, I’m stubborn. I can be that way as a coach,
too.” He still speaks English with his mother, except when they
argue. “Then she calls me a tete d’Irlandais.”
But a crash course in the geo-politics of language would all come
later. At 819 Laporte in the 1950s, life was simpler if not
necessarily more pleasant.
The family lived in six rooms and went to work every day at
Imperial Tobacco, five minutes by foot. The Forum was a 15-minute
walk, and Alfred Burns would take his son to a game every few
weeks. They would sit in the whites and peer around the posts that
blocked their view. Pat Burns wore his No. 9 Maurice Richard
sweater to St. Henri Park. Everyone wore a No. 9 Maurice Richard
sweater to the park.
“One of those big woollen ones, eh?” Burns said. “With the
turtlenecks. During the fall and spring, they’d start scratching
you, eh? Somebody in my family bought me a Blackhawks shirt. I
don’t know who – an aunt, I guess. I cried my eyes out. I couldn’t
wear it here. I couldn’t wear it here.”
Not in St. Henri Park.
Not in the 1950s when the generic St. Henri joke was that you were
born in Our Lady of Perpetual Payments and went to school at Our
Lady of Broken Windows.
Not when some of the children would burn a park bench every St.
Jean Baptiste Day and Louise Burns would make sure her boy stayed
Not when the Forum was home to the gods and the hockey sweaters
itched and Ti-Cas purloined a bicycle and Burns would skate in
circles on the frozen Jacques Cartier fountain and no one gave a
damn what language you spoke. Or at least pretended not to care.
“If you came from the neighborhood, there were no problems,” he
said. “Only if you came from outside of the neighborhood people
wondered what you were doing here . . . There might have been the
gang fighting that a lot of people talk about but I don’t remember
it. I was pretty young. But I never remember hearing anyone say
there were bad people here. There were a lot of good people.”
Burns walked north on Laporte Ave., west on St. Antoine St. He came
to a wooden door that had been marked by sticks, by age. He said,
“I got to try this.” Burns tried to force the door open, but it
“This door is where we used sneak out,” Burns said. “Open a window
and sneak out and get out on the street through here. We also used
to go up on the roof a lot.”
The door is adjacent to the entrance of 3968 St. Antoine. Burns
lived in this solid, stolid apartment building with – as a
policeman might say – no distinguishing characteristics. He lived
in the first apartment on the ground floor and if you are a man of
stature, and Pat Burns is a man of stature, you could see the
rabbit ears of a small television as you stood on the sidewalk.
Across the street at 3969A St. Antoine, on the site of a deserted
storefront with an A LOUER sign in the window, was a convenience
store. Burns didn’t cross the street by himself. Father Penney,
the priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Church around the corner, would
take him by the hand to the store where Burns would pick out
licorice. “With the drops in the middle? Remember those?” Burns
said. St. Antoine was one of his favorite streets.
St. Thomas Aquinas Church on de la Couvent St. is now St. Henri and
the school attached to the church is gone. Burns was religious; it
was expected of him. On Sundays the Burns family dressed up and
went to mass. “You were expected to be at your best,” he said. He
was not, however, much of a student. He was poor in most subjects,
worse in math. Beyond the site of his old school is a lawn and a
polyvalente. Burns said: “When I was here, that name didn’t even
“My friends here were Pierre and John and Bouboule and I don’t
remember their names either. Bouboule . . . there’s always a fat
kid in every gang, I guess. So many people are gone. I don’t think
anyone would remember me in the neighborhood. They might remember
my father. He was pretty big in the community. But the old ones
are gone and the young ones got married and moved out.” A man
driving a car leaned out the window of a passing car and offered
congratulations at being named coach of the Canadiens. The man
said he was Richard Grenier, president of the St. Henri Optimists
Club. “He was telling me they tore the school down,” Burns said
when he returned to the curb. “He was telling me that even he
doesn’t know a lot of the people. So many have moved.”
The Burns family moved around, too. They lived in Chateauguay for a
while. An uncle gave his father a house near what was then
Caughnawaga. Actually it was a garage, but Alfred Burns was handy
and converted it into a house. But the family returned. They
always came back to St. Henri.
Pat Burns was a few weeks away from his third birthday, but he
remembers being awakened by a commotion on the night of March 17,
1955. Whether it was the event itself or the retelling of the
event that Pat Burns remembers is immaterial because the
distinction between what is true and what you believe to be true
is so easily blurred as to be indistinguishable; you can have
lived something you never have seen. Anyway, his father and
brother had been listening to the radio and heard word of a
commotion at the Forum. They walked east and up the hill at
Atwater to investigate what would be a signal event in the history
of their neighborhood, their city, their province – the Richard
“There was a story going around the neighborhood that Dad was up
there breaking windows, that the old man had gone up there to
cause trouble,” Burns said. “That was ridiculous. Dad was proud.
He was a straight guy. Years later he would talk about it and say,
‘I remember back in 1955, they were throwing stuff at Mr. Campbell
and . . .”
Alfred Burns would call National Hockey League president Clarence
Campbell “Mr.,” just as his son would call Canadiens Managing
Director Serge Savard “Mr.” in interviews the day Burns was hired
as coach. On Thursday, Savard had a brief meeting wih Burns.
‘Call me Serge’
“It’s Serge,” Savard said. “You don’t have to call me ‘Mr. Savard.’
The family moved to Gatineau after Alfred Burns died. Burns was 16.
He was a decent winger with a bum knee, nothing approaching NHL
calibre. Burns had listened to Danny Gallivan, had idolized the
Canadiens, dreamed of being part of it one day, but he knew he
wasn’t going to make his living from hockey. He studied welding at
Ottawa Technical School. He became a cop for $39 a week, clear.
But the story of Pat Burns‘s Homecoming is about the luck of the
Irish, the pluck of the Irish. He coached mosquito hockey players.
He coached midget hockey players and after his team lost a
tournament to the Ville Emard Hurricanes when an elegant
14-year-old named Mario Lemieux scored an overtime goal, Burns
wept with, and for, his kids. He scouted for and later coached the
Hull Olympiques. The Canadiens liked what they saw and hired him
to coach their Sherbrooke farm club.
“Montrealers know the game,” Burns said as he turned off St.
Jacques St. and walked north on Laporte. “I won’t screw them on
that. I can’t because I’m one of them. Basically, the new coach of
the Canadiens is just Joe Blow. I think people here are willing to
give a chance to one of their one.
“I’m the first one in my family to make it to the NHL – except for
my cousin. (Robin Burns played three seasons for Pittsburgh and
Kansas City in the 1970s.) People say I don’t have experience.
Well, what’s experience? I never stepped onto the ice in the NHL,
but Michel Bergeron never played in the NHL, and that didn’t stop
him from being a good coach. Terry Simpson never played a game . .
. and he just signed a contract extension with the Islanders. I
coached in juniors against guys like Yvon Lambert and Moose Dupont
and (Carol) Vadnais, all good NHL guys, and all these guys all had
their difficulties. So what is experience? All I try to do is get
the most from my players. I only want them to work, and be happy
“Serge told me that if I didn’t want (Jacques) Lemaire or (Jacques)
Lapierriere or (Francois) Allaire in the coaching block downstairs
to tell him because that block belongs to me. Lappy? Jacques
Laperriere? He’s a Hall of Famer. I’m going to say I don’t want to
talk with Lappy? Same thing with Lemaire. You don’t think Jacques
Lemaire can’t help? This year I asked him to come down to
Sherbrooke to help because our power play was going rotten. He
watched and after the game he went to the blackboard and suggested
– he didn’t tell me, he suggested – that I might want to try it
this way and I want might to use a different guy in this position.
He was a big help. He’s got a great hockey mind. I’m not going to
want to talk to Jacques Lemaire?”
The tour of the neighborhood was ending. Before returning to the
Forum on this morning, Burns will have accepted congratulations
twice and sign one autograph after being recognized by a woman
visiting from Calgary who had seen him on the television. Burns,
who is divorced and has children aged 15 and 10, once took a
girlfriend for a walk around these streets, but other than that,
he hadn’t been in the neighborhood for 20 years.
“I liked it here,” he said. “But people didn’t stay here too long.”
But if you are Joe Blow – and you get the breaks – you can go home