I've heard old people say as the end of your life draws nearer, you grow "close to the bone." They mean the body draws in on itself, excess wears away and the lines of cheek and joint and limb stand out in their stark, ascetic simplicity. As the body draws close to the bone, though, so does the spirit. Artifice and dissembling lose importance. Words become finite, with no breath for those without meaning.
Pat Burns is close to the bone now. Watching him voice his appreciation for the new community rink to be named after him, the opening of which he freely acknowledges he'll be watching "from above," the essence of the man was clearly apparent. The guy who, when coaching the leafs and Bruins, we scathingly called "Fat" Burns, now is strikingly angular in appearance. An almost ethereal light surrounds him; reflected in his still-burning eyes. You might call it the light of truth. He's never been a person to say less than exactly what he meant. He speaks as candidly about his impending death as he did when, as Habs head coach, he was asked his opinion on a recently-arrested Shayne Corson. "Shayne Corson can go eat shit," was his succinct, politically incorrect and completely justified response. Now he talks as honestly about his relationship with his family and his God, and the distillation of life down to the essence of what it's all about: love.
Pat Burns loved hockey. It's not as important now as the love he bears for the people close to him, but it was a deep and passionate love throughout his working life. The thing is, when a person devotes himself to an endeavor the way Burns devoted himself to hockey, the people around him tend to love him back. Hockey people have a chance now to show Burns their appreciation for what he's done within the game he loved, by fast-tracking his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
His spot in the Hall is well-earned, and not by the tragedy of his early death. He is the only coach to have won the Jack Adams trophy with three different teams. He hoisted the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. Stats show in 13 seasons of coaching, Burns’ teams either finished first or second in the NHL in defense seven times and were among the top ten in defense ten times. His career record in the NHL is 501-350-161-14. He did it all with a hot temper, evidenced by the time he punched Mathieu Schneider to wake him up after a bad period, and an indefatigable sense of humour. He once said about coaching, "The first year there's sugar all around the cup. The second year the sugar falls off. The third year is salt and the fourth year it's vinegar." He was tough too. He made Serge Savard agree to suspend Corson indefinitely after yet another bar fight until Corson, who was playing his best hockey of the year at the time, swore to stay out of bars until the season ended. "I have a deal with him that I want him to stay out of the bars until the end of the season," he said. "In the summer, Shayne can do whatever he wants because I'll be relaxing on my boat. But during the season, I'd like him to stay away from the places where he likes to play the macho man. He has to take responsibility for himself." He believed in responsibility, hard work and loyalty. One would imagine that, if not for the cancer that's eroding his body, he'd be coaching still. Given time, Pat Burns will certainly be inducted into the Hall as a builder, no matter what fans say.
Unfortunately for him, and for us, he doesn't have time. I'm not sure Burns himself is really covetous of the honour. I expect he'd appreciate it, but its importance has been overshadowed for him by things of deeper, much more eternal significance. It matters to us, though. We, who respect and admire what he's done for the game, need to have a way to say thank you to him. We need to let him know we care about his legacy, we recognize his love of the game and we love him back for that. We want him to know it before he has to watch his induction ceremony "from above."
Fans have taken it upon themselves to rally support for his hastened induction to the Hall. There's a facebook group people can join to show they're behind the effort. We know the wheels of the gods grind slowly, and when it comes to hurrying up anything in hockey, they seem not to grind at all. This is a case that deserves to be an exception, for the fans of the game and for a man who loved it all his life. Time is precious when you're close to the bone.