Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: Coach (2012)

By Rosie DiManno

While reading "Coach" in December 2012, I took a look at amazon.ca to see what the reviews were like from readers.

There were two. One was from Pat Burns' first wife, and it said that the book was inaccurate, filled with lies and incomplete. The former NHL coach was a much worse person than he was portrayed, she claimed.

Then there was a review from Burns' sister, who loved the book.

Hmmm. Couldn't wait to see how a non-family member, meaning me, might react at that point. While realizing that there are two sides to every story, "Coach" comes across a good accounting of Burns' life, particularly in regard to his hockey career ... which is why most people will read this in the first place.

Let's get one point out quickly though. Author Rosie DiManno makes it clear that Burns was no saint, particularly when he was a young adult. He did get married and divorced rather quickly and wasn't much of a father in those early days. Burns also could be a loner, particularly when hockey wasn't going so well. The stories about Burns' life as a policeman are a little vague at times, in part because Burns was known to exaggerate about those exploits. But the stories are still entertaining no matter how much truth is involved.

Burns sort of stumbled into a hockey career, serving as a coach to young players while working around his career with the police. Eventually that led to a stint in junior hockey, which led to a job in the minors. Before he knew it, Burns was the coach of the most fabled franchise in hockey, the Montreal Canadiens.

He did fine there for a while, and - take it from someone who attended news conferences for him - he always projected presence and attitude. My guess is that you always knew Pat Burns was in charge if you visited the locker room. His time in the Montreal fish bowl is well covered.

Even so, DiManno turns up the power of the microscope when Burns arrives in Toronto to coach the Maple Leafs in 1992. The Leafs surprised everyone by advancing to the conference finals, losing Game Seven to the Kings in a memorable playoff series in 1993. Even in eventual defeat, the Leafs had quite a ride. DiManno is all over that season, covering it with a few chapters in detailed fashion.

The story picks up in speed once Burns leaves Toronto. He coached in Boston and then in New Jersey, where finally he won a Stanley Cup - the missing item on his resume. Burns never had much of a chance to add to that record, as he was diagnosed with cancer after the following season and battled health problems for several years before dying.

There's one important part of DiManno's research that clearly elevates this a notch. She talked to everyone she could find after Burns' death. That means the book just doesn't have quotes from the time, although there are plenty of those, but everyone felt free to speak openly about relationships with Burns. It's fascinating to read what former Bruins' general manager Harry Sinden had to say about Burns' time in Boston with the perspective of hindsight.

"Coach" is a rather well-done portrait of a man who seemed so intent on moving forward that it took him until his dying days before he remembered to look around as he traveled. It's particularly good for Leaf fans who remember that surprising run from 20 years ago. But remember, relatives may have a different opinion.

Four stars

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