VANCOUVER – You could not shake Alex Burrows. Playing in the National Hockey League with the tenacity and hunger of someone who never forgot his meagre start as a professional, Burrows was as relentless as he was annoying to opponents.
He was like sand in your bathing suit. Every game.
Even teammates couldn’t get rid of Burrows. The Vancouver Canucks would go into power-play meetings — the skill guys, the stars — and who was that at the back of room? Burrows, uninvited.
The former ball hockey player was about to quit the East Coast League and go back to school in Montreal when the Manitoba Moose, with a couple of extra roster spots due to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, called him up to the American Hockey League. Burrows was the power-play crasher.
“What else was I going to do?” he explained Tuesday to reporters. “I might as well try to learn more, see what our power play was going to try to do. If I was the next man up, I wanted to make sure that I knew what ... my role was going to be, what I should be looking for. So that's why I would go in there and sit in these meetings. I just liked it. Instead of eating bagels in the lounge, I would rather be in there making sure that if my name was going to get called upon to be the next guy up, I was going be ready for it.”
Burrows usually had bagels on the ice, scoring just 10 times in his first season-and-a-half in the NHL.
“If someone wants to learn something, that was always good for us,” Henrik Sedin, the retired Canucks star, told Sportsnet when asked about his ex-linemate crashing assistant coach Newell Brown’s power-play meetings. “You could tell from Day 1, this is not a guy that's going to be here two games and then get sent down and you'll never see him again, which is the case sometimes when you see new guys coming up. He was also a guy that you could tell was going to get a chance on the power play because he was so smart.”
As he graduated from agitator to scorer, Burrows became that power-play guy. He still is.
Burrows returned to Vancouver this week as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, who promoted him from their farm team staff in Laval when general manager Marc Bergevin fired head coach Claude Julien and top assistant Kirk Muller two weeks ago.
Dominique Ducharme is the interim head coach. Far better known for his penalty killing, Burrows is responsible for coaching the Montreal power play that has led the NHL since Feb. 24 with a 45.5 per cent success rate, going 5-for-11.
The power play produced Montreal’s goal in Monday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Canucks. The rematch is Wednesday night at Rogers Arena.
“Manny Malhotra is a power-play coach too in Toronto, right?” Sedin said, referring to another ex-Canuck renowned for his checking. “Burr has seen it from the other side. He's been a PK guy, so he knows what the PK is going to do. And he played power play for many years, too. I don't think it's a big deal, as long as you know the game of hockey and you can pick up on little things.”
Burrows, 39, certainly knows the game, having climbed from obscurity to immortality in hockey, starting with a tryout in the East Coast League and ending with his name and image added to the Canucks’ “Ring of Honour” 15 months ago.
Burrows returned to Rogers Arena two months later as red-carpet guest for Henrik and Daniel Sedin’s jerseys retirement ceremony.
“The boys reminded me in the morning skate that my name was up there, and they were giving me their chirps, and 'How did you get up there?” Burrows said of the Canadiens’ skate Monday. “I heard it all yesterday from the players. They were joking with it, but it was fine with me.
“Normally with my family, we come back to (Vancouver) every summer and spend a couple of weeks here and see some friends. But this summer with COVID, we couldn't come back. So yesterday was the first time back in the building since the twins’ night. Obviously, it was special. Vancouver is always going to have a special place for me. So many good memories in this city, in this building.”
Burrows played 822 for the Canucks over 13 seasons, scoring 193 goals and 384 points, and making it within one game of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup.
After an unlikely and prolonged journey to the NHL as a player, his return as a coach has been almost meteoric. Burrows landed his first coaching job with Laval immediately after retiring as an Ottawa Senator in 2018. Just 2½ years later, here he is.
“The way he sees the game and is able to relate to all these guys in the minors because he has done that journey himself, I thought it was a great fit for that team,” Sedin said. “I think he's going to do a great job with Montreal. He's going to be a coach for a very long time, for sure.”
“I don't know if it makes me a better coach or not,” Burrows said of his initial struggle to build a career. “I've pretty much seen it all, played it all. Obviously, there's only one thing missing. If I can do it as a coach, I'll be extremely happy. I'm still chasing that dream.
“I was shocked when I got the news that night that Marc called me and announced to me that there was a car service that was going to pick me up the next morning and I was going to join the (Canadiens) in Ottawa. Obviously, I was really shocked. I didn't expect the call. But at the same time, I was really excited, really thrilled to get a chance to get back in the NHL with my childhood team and chase that Lord Stanley again.”
Burrows is relentless.