Order your copy of "Late in the Third"
In Chapter One, Joe describes his hockey beginnings for the legendary coach Eddie Burns.
Opposing players and coaches frequently mocked all of this. “Oh, you play for Eddie Burns? How many breakouts do you guys have now, twenty?” Affectations aside, Burns won. And he won often.
He wasn’t perfect. And we had fun with that. He might start a story with, “Ninety-nine times out of ten …” The capacity crowd of 13,909 at the old Boston Garden might come out as, “Thirteen thousand nine-oh-thousand.” Before taking on a major rival, his pre-game talk frequently included some politically incorrect motivation. “Nervous? Why there are fifty million Chinamen who don’t even know you’re playing.”
His wardrobe made even me look like a GQ model. And we all tried to mimic that gravelly voice. But never in front of him.
I can still see him, more than five decades later, walking into one of those Boston Arena locker rooms, reaching high to leave his cigar on top of a make-shift wall and getting set to deliver his pregame remarks. We would play the period, he would return and reach for that cigar, and then go outside the room to discuss the period with his assistants.
Once, to the astonishment of the rest of us, a teammate stood up and, just as Eddie left the room ahead of us, moved the cigar about two feet to the left. At the end of the period, we all watched Eddie reach in vain for that cigar for several uncomfortable seconds. Given our respect for him, such moments were rare.
One of my teammates once observed that Eddie accomplished all of this by rarely raising his voice and never, to our collective memories, using a bad word. (As one alum said, “He sometimes used the wrong word but never a bad word!”)
He was competitive. We never thought he placed too much emphasis on winning, but he wasn’t afraid to make it clear how important it was. Once, after winning a state tournament game, he crossed the ice to shake the hand of the opposing coach. When he extended his hand, his vanquished foe ungraciously said, “Well, you’re one up on me,” and then turned and walked away.
As fate would have it, the two teams met in the following year’s championship game. Same result. As the postgame handshake was about to unfold and the losing coach feebly extended his hand, Eddie didn’t wait. “Now I’m two up on you,” he said with a smile.