A man who spent 16 years taking confessions was behind his desk making one. "I grew up three blocks from this place," said Pat Burns, "and I never dreamed I'd be sitting here."
"Here" is inside the Montreal Forum, home of the Canadiens, and Burns, 36, is Montreal's first-year coach.
"I remember sneaking in the back door one night," said Burns, "and asking [former Canadiens defenseman] Jacques Laperrière for his autograph." Laperrière is now one of his assistant coaches.
There was a knock on the door. "Yeah?" said Burns, suddenly sounding gruff. "Oui?"
Right wing Stéphane Richer poked his head in the door. He had a question about the next day's travel schedule, and he and Burns conversed briefly in French. When Richer was finished, he took pains to close the door softly behind him, which wasn't surprising. Ever since the celebrated John Kordic incident, the Canadiens have tended to be on their best behavior when visiting Burns.
Early in October, Kordic, an archgoon and forward who has since been traded from Montreal to the Toronto Maple Leafs, burst into Burns's office and demanded—in language unsuitable for general audiences—to know why he was playing so little. Burns answered by flinging an ashtray that sailed past Kordic's head and shattered against a wall. "I told him he could come back when he felt he could talk to me like a decent human being," says Burns. "I missed him deliberately, but I made my point. I respect the guys. What I really want from them is to respect me."
They do, and that's one of several advantages Burns has over his predecessor, Jean Perron. Last season the Canadiens were a talented but troubled group. The players ripped Perron, he denounced the players, and the veterans on the team bickered with the younger players. The Montreal press feasted on the discord. "For a team that finished with 103 points, we were very unhappy," says left wing Mats Naslund. The Canadiens got sadder still when the Boston Bruins upset them in five games in the Adams Division playoff finals.
What Montreal needed was a little law and order, and Burns was just the man for the job. Before he began coaching hockey full-time in 1983, he was a police officer. The discipline he brought from the station house to the Canadiens has paid off. As of Sunday, Montreal led the Adams Division by 24 points with a 40-15-7 record and had given up 2.88 goals a game, second-best in the NHL. Most important, the Canadiens have shown few traces of the peaks-and-valleys play that plagued them last season.
The first ill Burns addressed was the rift between his older and younger players. "You could even see it on the ice," he says. After a 5-4 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29 left Montreal with a 4-7-1 record, the Canadiens flew to Hartford, where Burns suggested that they lock themselves in a hotel room to air out their differences. "Everybody threw his wash into the same machine, and that was that," says Burns. Not co-incidentally, Montreal lost only two of its next 22 games and has remained the hottest team in hockey.
Burns, who coached the Sherbrooke Canadiens in the American Hockey League for a year before Montreal managing director Serge Savard selected him to replace the technocratic Perron last June, is the youngest coach in Canadiens history. His greatest strength is his ability to motivate. "He's not an X's and O's guy," says goalie Brian Hayward. "He's the type of guy you really want to play for." Adds defenseman Larry Robinson, "He's not afraid to snap the whip."