I'm not sure I've ever written anything that generated as much response as this Oct. 6, 2010, column on TSN.ca.
I turned 54 in August, and the truth of the matter is that once you turn 50, I think it's normal to occasionally think about life, and death, what you've done with your life, what you still plan to do with your life and, most importantly of all, how much time you have left to do it.
We all know there are no guarantees. Hey, someone has to die today, it could be me or you. You never know.
But all things being equal, I've always maintained that if I were to get 75 reasonably healthy and happy years on this earth, well, that would be just fine and dandy, outstanding actually, no complaints from this corner. Mind you, if I am fortunate enough to get to age 74, I might have reason to alter my views on what constitutes a good run in life. But I will cross that bridge (no pun intended) IF I get there.
If one is to use 75 as the target figure for a relatively full and enriched life, it doesn't take a genius to figure out I'm not only playing the back nine now, but I'm teeing off at No. 14. Maybe the golf analogy isn't a good one since I usually get bored and feel like quitting golf after 12 or 13 holes. Note to self: Find a new analogy. Quickly.
In any case, I think you catch my drift.
So one of the books I read this summer was The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh who died of cancer, but before dying delivered the now famous Last Lecture. If you go to Youtube, you will find it. It's really quite remarkable. At Pausch's school, there was something called the Last Lecture series, a hypothetical exercise where professors give a lecture "pretending" it would be the last lecture they ever gave.
Except in Pausch's case, he wasn't pretending. It's really quite moving. And after delivering the lecture, he managed to get a book out, too, and if you haven't read it and want to ponder the meaning of life, and death, it's a very fine read. Fairly short, too, which allows to you do other things with the balance of your life, which is more than can be said about this piece by the time you've finished reading it.
Which, finally, brings me around to the point of this column.
It's really about Joe Mansbreek, a 58-year-old friend of mine who, by all accounts, doesn't have long to live.
Mansbreek was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004 and liver cancer in 2005. He ultimately wound up with lung cancer, which seems to be the one that will finish him off, although with that many cancers ravaging the body, it's hard to say. Through the treatments and chemotherapy, there came a point where Mansbreek realized the writing was on the wall and he started to focus more on enjoying what was left of his life as opposed to chasing every life-sapping treatment that was available to him. And he did exactly that, living his life to the fullest and staring down the enemy with courage and conviction that I'm sure most people would have a tough time mustering.
If Mansbreek's story sounds familiar, it should, because Joe Mansbreek is actually Pat Burns.
Mansbreek is pretty much all I've called Burns for more than a decade now and more often than not that's how he greeted me as well. If either of us left a message for each other, the person receiving the message would be Mansbreek and the person leaving the message would be Gullen Gumble. And after all the years, we would never fail to laugh about how we came up with the names.
Burns was an out of work coach in 1996-97 -- between jobs, having been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs and not yet hired by the Boston Bruins -- and doing what a lot of out of work NHL coaches do -- hanging around TSN, doing a little TV work, waiting for the next gig, working on the panel with me and Dave Hodge.
Burns was a lot of fun to be around. He had that big hearty laugh that was almost a guffaw, could curse a blue streak the way only an ex-cop turned hockey coach could do it and we shared a lot of laughs that year, but none bigger or longer or funnier than the time we were listening to a clip from then New York Ranger Esa Tikkanen, who was speaking "Tikkanese" as only Esa could. We weren't really sure what Tikkanen was saying because the words were all running together and Burnsie thought it was the funniest things he had ever heard. The only distinguishable things that came out of the interview for us were Joe Mansbreek and Gullen Gumble.
Burns said to me, "Who the (expletive) are Joe Mansbreek and Gullen Gumble?"
Having heard Tikkanese before, Hodge and I translated. "(Ranger goalie) John Vanbiesbrouck and (Ranger coach) Colin Campbell," we told him.
Burns roared. He had tears coming down his face. He thought it might have been the funniest thing he ever heard. Ever after that, if the phone rang and I answered it and heard the greeting, "Mansbreek," I would say "Gullen Gumble" and we'd giggle and move on to whatever we were going to talk about. It would be the same routine if I called him. Or if either of us left a message.
I actually became friends with Pat before that, when he was coaching the Maple Leafs and I was a columnist with The Toronto Star. I'd be there for his daily media scrums, where he usually snapped at someone or figuratively bit off their head and often times he'd invite me into the coach's office afterwards just to talk, mostly hockey but some general life stuff as well.
I learned an awful lot about the game of hockey from Pat Burns and how he believed it should be played.
I'll always remember him telling me that before you ever got to Xs or Os or any of that technical stuff, a good coach had to start by showing a commanding presence to his players, that the coach is the boss and you had to carry yourself like a man who is not to be trifled with. He talked about how intimidating it could have been for a once junior coach from the Hull Olympiques to walk into the Montreal Canadiens dressing room for his first NHL coaching job and how for a coach to be successful, he had to strut into the room like it was his domain, the same way a cop walks into a bar where there's been some trouble and is there to maintain order.
Burns always had that presence. In spades. But he also knew if the strut was all you had, you didn't really have anything. Burns was a legitimately tough SOB, but he also knew the game and how he thought it should be played.
He would go on at length about turnovers at either blue line and how they would invariably end up in the back of your net. He would go on and on about that. No turnovers at either blue line.
He didn't believe a defenceman covering the forward in front of the net should ever try to get his stick on the puck, he should only take the stick away from the forward and let a defensive teammate worry about the loose puck. "See that defenceman," Burns would say, "He's going to reach for that loose puck and the forward might beat him to it and it's going to be in the (expletive) net. That forward can't get to that loose puck if his stick is tied up. It's up to another player on our team to get to that loose puck first. All the first defenceman has to do is tie up the forward's stick and trust a teammate. Just do your own (expletive) job and you'll be fine."
Burns always believed the glass was a defenceman's best friend, that any time the D-man was under pressure, it was put the puck high, hard and off the glass. I jokingly used to call it the "Pat Burns Breakout" and he would tell me to go (expletive) myself. He did, however, like it when his longtime assistant coach Jacques Laperriere would instruct players to put if off "the window" or the "the windshield." He thought that was funny.
It's not like Pat and I were ever best friends, but he is the only man in hockey who actually asked me if I wanted a job. It was during his time at TSN and he was waiting to hear whether he was getting the Bruin job and he said to me one day, "You should come be my assistant coach in Boston. C'mon, we'll have a blast."
I don't think he was ever really serious about it -- he was just being nice, which he was a lot despite the gruff exterior -- and even if he was, I think at that time he mostly figured the role of an assistant coach was really just someone the head coach wanted to go drinking with after practice. Which, with my Irish roots, I easily could have done.
Burns was a great coach with the Canadiens and the Leafs, did an amazing job with the Bruins and, of course, won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils.
But for everything Pat gave to hockey and what he taught me about the game and coaching, I think it's fair to say he taught me more about life, and death. From the time he was diagnosed with cancer, he showed his Fightin' Irish spirit and when it became apparent this wasn't a battle he was going to win in the long run, his decision to embrace quality of life over quantity of life was bold and courageous and inspiring. He wasn't giving up, he wasn't letting cancer beat him. He was just being the practical guy he always was, he was just taking the forward's stick away from him and taking care of his own business to his own satisfaction.
We didn't talk a lot in a recent years, a conversation or two each year, but when there would be some story, usually in a Montreal newspaper, suggesting Pat was on death's door step or not long for this world, my phone would ring and he would bellow, "Mansbreek, those (expletive) in Montreal are trying to kill me again and I'm not dead. Tell everyone I'm alive and well and to (expletive) off." And we'd have a good, old laugh about it and he'd reflect on where he was at and the reality of the situation but how he was just fine and dandy with it. I never hung up the phone without thinking, "Now there's a real man. I hope like hell when my time comes, I'm able to deal with it as courageously and directly as Pat."
And lo and behold, it all happened again today.
Somewhere, someone decided to report this morning Pat Burns had died. This being the age of Twitter and all, it went viral. Pat Burns, RIP. Except, almost predictably when it comes to Burns, the media reports were dead wrong. I emailed Pat's volatile and lovable cousin Robin and Robin informed me in short order Pat was still alive. That was at 12:18 p.m. ET.
At 12:25 p.m., my phone rang. It was none other than Mansbreek, and he didn't waste any time getting to the point: "If anyone is going to tell them all I'm still alive, it's got to be you, because you've always done it for me. Here we go again. They're trying to kill me before I'm dead. I come to Quebec to spend some time with my family and they say I'm dead. I'm not dead, far (expletive) from it. They've had me dead since June. Tell them I'm alive. Set them straight."
We shared a laugh, I told him how much I cared for him and he was gone. And he will be soon enough, but not just yet.
Burns deserves better than that. Though I guess if he were so inclined, he gets to play Tom Sawyer and listen to his own eulogies.
I will also tell you this -- Pat Burns deserved better than what he got, or didn't get, from the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee in June.
I still can't believe that Pat Burns was not named to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in June. I remember being in contact with Robin Burns the morning of the day the Hall of Fame contacts those who are chosen, to inform them of their impending induction. I asked Robin to call me with the good news when Pat got the call from the HHOF. And then, as I stood in the parking lot of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas (site of the NHL Awards), I was gobsmacked to learn the selection committee had chosen NOT to induct Burns.
In all the years I've been involved in this game -- 30 plus -- I don't know that I've ever been more emotionally disturbed by something that has happened than that. That's no disrespect intended to any of this year's honorees, none whatsoever. It's just that, for me, Pat Burns going into the Hall of Fame is a no brainer. I mean, he's won more Jack Adams Awards (3) than any other coach ever. He's won a Stanley Cup with the Devils, got the Canadiens to the final and almost got the Maple Leafs there. His 501-353-151-14 regular-season record is 14th all-time amongst NHL coaches and had he not been afflicted with cancer, who knows how high on the list he would have been by now? He coached three Original Six franchises and is a commanding presence in hockey.
I tried that day in June to imagine how Pat must feel about the snub. I'm not saying the HHOF should induct every guy in the game who happens to be dying of cancer, but if the person has the credentials, the concept that it would be nice for him to get the honor while he's still alive, well, wouldn't that be a nice touch. And, quite frankly, I just can't imagine Pat Burns doesn't have the credentials.
In a perverse way, I almost hope they never induct Burns into the Hall of Fame, because then there would at least be some justification for what they did in June. Otherwise, if they induct in a year or five or 10, I'm going to be really bitter that they didn't see fit to do it while he is still alive and indirectly dishonor him that day in June.
Knowing Pat, I'm sure he would have been deeply honored, but I suspect in the grand scheme of things, faced with what he's faced with, he's well equipped to deal with that disappointment and put it in context.
For what it's worth, and it's probably not much, Pat Burns is in my Hall of Fame and I suspect I'm not alone on that count.
But for all that Burns has meant to hockey, for all he's taught me about the game, he's meant so much more than that to me.
Because when it's all said and done, my pal Pat, like Randy Pausch in his Last Lecture, has taught a fifty-something guy like me, who thinks a little more now than before about my own mortality, an invaluable lesson, one which I hope I'm able to master when my time comes.
My buddy Mansbreek has taught me a lot about life and maybe a lot more on how to die like a man.
Good man, that Mansbreek. Right to the bitter end, whenever that may be, but the good news is that it certainly wasn't this morning.
And Gullen Gumble thanks Mansbreek from the bottom of his heart.