There was never much doubt that Alex Burrows would have a career in hockey if he wanted one, following the end of his playing career.
Well known as a student of the game during the course of his 913-game NHL career with the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators, few players thought the game as well as Burrows.
It was, however, a surprise that he ended up back in the NHL so soon, after retiring as a player three years ago.
Hired as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate in Laval in 2018, it took less than three years for Burrows to earn an NHL promotion. When Dominique Ducharme was hired as Claude Julien’s replacement on February 24, Burrows was elevated into an assistant coaching role with the Habs.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen this quick,” Burrows told reporters today, from Vancouver. “I was really shocked. I didn’t expect the call, but at the same time I was really excited, really thrilled to get a chance to get back in the NHL with my childhood team, and to chase that Lord Stanley again.”
Burrows didn’t exactly ease into his new role either.
There are not many places like Montreal in terms of media scrutiny, as evidenced by the fact that Burrows — an assistant coach — spoke to reporters for a whopping 49 minutes today in English and French.
Since Alex Burrows has been running MTL's power play, the Canadiens have scored five goals on 11 power-play opportunities. That's the best efficiency in the NHL since Feb. 24. However, all the goals have been scored on their second unit… We'll speak with Burrows today.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) March 9, 2021
Burrows was given a rather large responsibility, being immediately put in charge of the team’s power play. So far so good, as the Canadiens have the best power play percentage in the league since the former ball hockey star took over.
What Burrows learned with the Canucks
Burrows famously didn’t play a lot on the power play as a player with the Canucks, with Alain Vigneault usually only giving him second-unit time, even when he was a 30-goal scorer playing on the first line with the Sedins. Even when he wasn’t a part of either power play unit, Burrows said he always made sure to sit in on the power play meetings — a surefire sign that he would make a good coach some day.
“What else was I going to do?” Burrows explained. “I might as well try to learn more, see what our power play was going to try to do, and if I was the next man up I wanted to make sure that I knew what my route was going to be, what my role was going to be, what I should be looking for.
“So that’s why I would go in there, sit in these meetings, and I just liked it, that’s pretty much it.
“Instead of eating bagels in the lounge, I would rather be in there making sure that if my name was called upon to be the next guy up, I was going to be ready for it.”
On what he picked up from his longtime linemates Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Burrows said they were “experts at simple plays.”
“It wasn’t always that crazy between the leg saucer pass, back door, and the tic tac toes. The way they had success was by keeping it simple, over and over and over, and becoming experts at that. It comes down to execution, it comes down with knowing where teammates are going to be on the ice.”
Players chirping him
Still just 39 years old, Burrows is closer in age to many of the players than he is to members of the Canadiens coaching staff. He’s just four years older than Corey Perry and Shea Weber for instance, two players he battled with many times during his career.
That makes him a bit more like a friend that players can talk to, rather than a father figure, Burrows says. It might also make him more vulnerable to chirps.
During Monday’s morning skate, Burrows said some of the Canadiens players had some fun at his expense, pointing out his image in the Ring of Honour in Rogers Arena.
“The boys, they reminded me in morning skate that my name was up there and they were giving me their chirps — ‘How did you get up there?’ — I heard it all yesterday from the players. They were joking with it, it was fine with me.”
Burrows is no stranger to dishing out chirps, of course, so those players better be ready to take it too.
Still chasing that dream
On his approach to coaching, Burrows had a simple but inspiring answer: be yourself.
“Everybody says the same thing, try to be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and that’s what brought you here. That’s how I made my career, I never really changed, I always tried to be a hard worker,” said Burrows.
“Every day in the NHL is always a great day. And now that I’m here, I won’t start changing the way I am. I’m going to be myself and that’s what brought me here, that’s what gave me the career I had, so why change now?”
Burrows’ rags to riches story is well known, working his way up from the ECHL, to the AHL, then to the NHL as a checker and agitator. He was never supposed to be more than a third or fourth line grinder, but he ended up carving a pretty nice career as a goal-scorer. But through it all, he had the same dream as every other hockey player, to win the Stanley Cup, and his dream as a coach is no different.
“I’ve pretty much seen it all, played at all. Obviously, there’s only one thing missing. If I can do it as a coach, I’ll be extremely happy.
“I’m still chasing that dream.”