"…I know my life is nearing its end and I accept that. As for my career, I always said to my kids, 'you don't cry because it's over, you're happy because it happened.' That's the main thing. I'm happy it happened." -- Former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Pat Burns, March 26, 2010.
It’s been about eight hours since I found out former Leafs coach Pat Burns passed away and I’m still devastated. But at some point I have to write something about this and tonight I thought I’d share how I became a Leafs fan.
I didn’t know it at the time but my love for the Leafs started in the summer of 1986. Back then, San Diego was a hockey wasteland. The WHA’s San Diego Mariners folded nine years earlier and with the exception of the PHL’s San Diego Hawks (and the immortal Bill Goldthorpe) the only hockey games you saw on television were whatever Los Angeles Kings games you could pick up on KCAL with a rabbit ears antenna on a clear night.
The St. Louis Blues hockey team was owned at the time by La Jolla businessman Harry Ornest, and when the Blues announced they were going to play an exhibition game at the San Diego Sports Arena against the Calgary Flames in late September I made sure I was first in line to buy tickets for the game. The biggest reason why I wanted to go? I wanted to see Doug Gilmour, who was my favorite NHL player after Bobby Clarke retired two seasons earlier. They had a similar style of play, except Gilmour didn’t use his stick like a scalpel on his opponents like Clarke did.
I attended the game with a very attractive “girlfriend” and we sat right behind the Blues bench. It was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever attended. Not only did I get to see Gilmour, Rob Ramage and Greg Millen in action for the Blues, but I also got to see a very young and feisty Gary Roberts play in one of his first professional games. Not bad for $30, huh?
Let’s fast forward seven years later to the spring of 1993. I’m in my third year of my junior year of college at San Diego State (It’s a long story) and almost all Los Angeles Kings hockey games were now available on cable television in San Diego via the Prime Ticket network. Pro hockey had returned to San Diego in the form of the IHL’s San Diego Gulls and Gilmour was now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a franchise I kept an eye on ever since they drafted Wendel Clark first overall in 1985.
That spring, both teams faced off in the Campbell Conference finals for the right to play the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. I was impressed with the Leafs because they reminded me of the Oakland Raiders. Unlike my Kings, the Leafs were a blue-collar team that worked hard and mirrored their tough head coach, intimidated everyone that stood in their way and won more often than they lost. They didn’t retire uniform numbers (Bill Barilko and Ace Bailey excepted) and their fans were everywhere. Even here in San Diego!
My most vivid memories of Pat Burns were from Game 1. After Marty McSorley and Clark fought at the Kings blue line, Burns pointed a finger at Kings head coach Barry Melrose and tried to go after him. To this day I still think Burns would have ripped Melrose’s mullet out of his skull if those ushers and police weren’t between them.
Although the Kings prevailed in seven games, I have to admit my heart wouldn’t have been broken if the Leafs had won the series. They played my kind of hockey and up until I disowned the Kings a few seasons ago I rooted for both franchises --even if I had to keep my membership in Leafs Nation a secret for many years.
Pat Burns made me a Leafs fan. That is what I’ll remember about him the most.