Under different circumstances, this could have been his team.
When the Devils were searching for a new head coach this summer, Pat Burns might have been the logical choice. He is a no-nonsense guy with a Stanley Cup ring, a history of success as a three-time NHL coach of the year and holds a special place in Devils history.
It was, of course, never a possibility. Burns, 57, is dealing with cancer for the third time since he was first diagnosed with colon cancer during the 2004 playoffs. He beat that, as well as liver cancer.
This time it is incurable lung cancer, which has taken a noticeable toll on the once-robust former cop. Burns has lost 57 pounds, and now weighs 184, his voice is very weak and he has decided to forego any further treatment.
"That’s all done. It wouldn’t do much. It’s not going to help. It’s a question of time, really," Burns told me from his home in New Hampshire.
"I feel so-so. It’s a struggle. But we knew that. It’s not getting any better. It’s progressing."
Usually, Burns soon would be heading to his other home in Florida. He remains a Devils special assignment coach and scout, doing most of his work watching games in Tampa and Sunrise, Fla.
But that is in jeopardy because the risk of the H1N1 Swine Flu virus makes it dangerous for Burns to be around crowds.
He won’t get to the Devils’ third game of the regular season on Oct. 8 in Tampa, where he usually meets up with the club and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"I won’t be there for the first road game in Tampa. I won’t go down to Florida until possibly next month, but the doctors sort of advised me to stay away from crowds because of that H1N1 virus," Burns said. "The inoculations don’t come out until early October. I want to get that.
"I’m going to try to work. I’m going to try and get down to see games in Tampa and Miami like I did last year. As much as I can. I’d like to do a lot more, but I can’t. I don’t want to be travelling in airports and on airplanes. For me it’s tough, because if that gets into my lungs it’s going to be a problem. I’ll do what I can by car."
Burns is an enthusiastic Jacques Lemaire supporter. But he believes, had his health been better, the Devils might have turned to him when Brent Sutter left the team on June 9 with one season remaining on his contract.
"I think so, " Burns said. "If I had been healthy I would have loved to coach, but having Jacques back is great for our hockey team. Bringing Jacques back into the picture, I think he’s the perfect coach for the situation we’re in right now. I think he’s the ideal choice."
It was during the 2004 first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers that Burns was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent treatment that summer and during the lockout season of 2004-05 with the intention of returning to the Devils’ bench.
Liver cancer ended that hope.
"I imagine I would have had an opportunity after the strike if I had been healthy," Burns speculated. "There is no reason why I shouldn’t have, but who knows? I figured that I would be healthy after the strike, but it came back again. There wasn’t much I could do."
Larry Robinson was named head coach in July of ’05, but stepped down in December and Lamoriello took over.
The Devils pursued Sutter, who turned them down, and they hired Claude Julien, who was fired with three games remaining in the 2006-07 season. Sutter ultimately agreed to a three-year contract on July 13, 2007, but he left after two seasons and is now head coach of the Calgary Flames.
Burns felt well enough to serve as an assistant coach to Team Canada’s Ken Hitchcock at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Halifax and Quebec City during the spring of 2008. But he returned home and learned he had incurable lung cancer.
He hopes to be strong enough to do some scouting for the Devils once he is inoculated against the H1N1 virus.
"I’m down to 184 pounds. That’s a lot of weight," he said. "But you can’t just sit around all day or you go crazy."
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