Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Review: "Coach: The Pat Burns Story" by Rosie DiManno

I had hesitations about reading "Coach: The Pat Burns Story", having worked my way through some underwhelming hockey biographies lately, but I needn't have worried.  Whereas "Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire" and "Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge" by Bob Probert were wooden, and relatively unenlightening, the Pat Burns biography is a strong effort.  It provides a full, warts-and-all illuminating portrait of a colourful person and successful hockey coach who left his mark on the game.

The difference here might be that it is strictly a biography, whereas the previous two efforts were more autobiographies, with a ghostwriter who seemed to act more as a typist, transcribing words spoken into a dictaphone onto the page.  Indeed, Kirstie McLellan Day, who helped Theoren Fleury and Bob Probert, seemed ill-equipped to tackle these projects, and let them tell their story without guiding them to clarify certain statements or events, or shining a light on certain personal failings that her co-authors felt didn't need any more scrutiny.

In this case, author Rosie DiManno is eminently qualified for the job of portraying Pat Burns, being a news and sports columnist with the Toronto Star, and having covered the Maple Leafs when Pat Burns was their Head Coach.  She also calls Pat Burns a friend, and states that their relationship carried through to the end of his life.  As such, she has good command of the material, and provides a rich and detailed look at the man, with insights and anecdotes that testify to her acquaintance with the tempestuous coach.

While she evidently has affection for her subject, this is certainly not a puff piece.  His failings are addressed in a straightforward manner, such as his difficulty in communicating with some of his players in certain situations.  Whereas he was verbose and a quote machine for the media, and could be warm off the ice, or even with opposing players, he was guarded with most of his players, aside from a few favourites.  His many broken relationships with a succession of women are not glossed over, as is the distance he kept between himself and his children, an error he tried to rectify later in life but never could quite overcome.

While these difficult subjects are discussed, we do not dive too deeply, as this is not a Kitty Kelley-style hatchet job, creating controversy to drive sales.  Instead, Rosie DiManno makes a point of contrasting how Mr. Burns avoided certain areas of conflict, in marked contrast to his public persona as a fiery, driven coach who didn't deal in double talk or understatement.  A theme in the book is how while Pat Burns never backed down from a fight as a coach, he was squeamish on the personal side, and would literally abandon former domiciles if it made a breakup with a former lover less messy.  Fortunately, Ms. DiManno brings up the personal life of her subject only to counterpoint his public image.  In this way, she paints a complete, human picture, of a man who was contradictory, imperfect, but magnetic and powerful in his professional life.

And there is a wealth of information and background on his career, from his humble beginnings as a part-time coach who worked his way up to an assistant position with the Hull Olympiques while still working fulltime as a police detective for the city of Hull.  He obtained the head coaching job, with the benediction of the police department, which granted him a leave of absence.  He of course would never return to his policing career, eventually graduating to the AHL Sherbrooke Canadiens, and the Montréal Canadiens a year later.  

It is on the professional side that Ms. DiManno does her best work.  Every step of the way, she does her research and background work, providing context and quotes from media sources at the time, and plenty of reminiscences from former associates, superiors and players.  It is a treasure trove of opinion and commentary, and most often supports the story's main thread, but the author is sure-handed and allows some statements from her interviewees that contradict it, and it fleshes out the story.  For the Olympiques period, she allows Charlie Henry, Wayne Gretzky, Pat Brisson, Luc Robitaille and Stéphane Richer to tell their stories and impressions.  For the year in Sherbrooke, she interviews Serge Savard, André Boudrias, Mike Milbury, Mike Keane, Brent Gilchrist and Sylvain Lefebvre.  The legwork pays off in the depth and accuracy of the story, and is obviously a joy to read for the hockey fan.

If there is a flaw in the book, it's how much of it is devoted to his period coaching the Leafs, as opposed to his other coaching stops.  Of course, this gripe comes from a Canadiens fan, but there is some factual basis to this claim.  Whereas the five years he spent in the Canadiens' organization is covered in eighty pages, she spends a hundred pages plus the prologue on the four years spent in Toronto.  The Canadiens' 1988-89 season that lasted to Game 6 of the Finals is dealt with in 38 pages, but the Toronto 1992-93 season and playoffs, which only lasted three rounds, are dissected in 57 agonizing pages, with stomach-turning helpings of Todd Gill and Dave Ellett and Nikolai Borschevsky and other horrors.

We can understand this in terms of the personal impact the Leaf years had on the author, as well as her authoritativeness on the subject, but we wonder also if this is a cynical pander to the multitude of Leafs fans, and a crass attempt to relieve Sean McIndoe of his hard-earned pageclick dollars.

This question also arises as to the choice of a cover picture.  Instead of being provided with a classic Pat Burns photo behind the bench, with his trademarked blow-dried mullet and $1000 suit, foaming at the mouth and waving a stick over his head, about to leap over the glass to take on an opposition coach, index finger pointed like his service revolver, we instead get a shot of him smiling astride a motorbike.  With the jeans and the sunglasses, he looks more like your midlife crisis-stricken uncle than the tough, blustery coach we picked up the book to know more about.  Which makes one wonder whether the publishers made the calculated decision to not put off Canadiens fans with a photo of Pat Burns leading the Leafs, and vice versa, and furthermore to not offend both these markets with a cover shot of him as a Bruins coach.  Still, a more fitting cover shot would have been of him raising the Stanley Cup as the Devil's coach, which everyone would have approved of, the Devils being a neutral enough organization to not cause too many potential customers to recoil.  Failing that, a shot of him 'in action' behind a bench, artfully cropped, should have been used.

These two last concerns are not reason enough for me to not recommend this book however.  It's a great, enjoyable read (except for those one hundred pages in the middle, but I don't want to quibble), and deepens our understanding and appreciation of an important figure in Canadiens and hockey history.  Every hockey fan would do well to pick up this book at their bookstore or local library.

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