From agitating player to soft-hearted coach, Alex Burrows continues to evolve

For most of his NHL playing career, Alex Burrows was an irritant. He was as welcomed in other teams’ buildings as a wasp at a nudist colony.

In his early days, Burrows played with a chip on his shoulder. Undrafted, he took the long road to the big leagues, working his way through hockey’s outer frontiers, believing in himself when others didn’t.

There was no retreat in Burrows. To those he played against, he had a personality like coarse sandpaper. He would spear you with his stick and slash you with his tongue.

But Burrows matched his bravado with skill. During his 11 years with the Vancouver Canucks, part of which was spent on the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, he scored 193 goals and 191 assists while collecting 1,066 penalty minutes.

His biggest goal came in overtime of Game 7 to eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks from the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. The Canucks would go on to lose in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

Alex Burrows and goaltender Roberto Luongo celebrate after eliminating the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals in double-overtime. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Now retired, Burrows is an assistant coach with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League. He sees a little of himself in the drive and devotion that today’s young players have for the game.

So, what would Burrows say to a brash player who skates with his heart on his sleeve, gets in other players’ faces, and pushes boundaries on the ice?

“I think the game has evolved,” the 38-year-old native of Pincourt, Que., said before being inducted into the Canucks Ring of Honour earlier this month. “You don’t see as many scrums after the whistle as I used to when I first entered the league, or when I played in the minors.

“It all depends. If they keep it in line and they make sure it’s just to get under somebody’s skin. I have to let them play and let them feel their own fire. I’m not against it. As long as it’s proper and in line.”

Burrows has certainly mellowed. In 2015, he apologized for on-ice comments that he made during his playing days towards Patrick O’Sullivan, an NHL player who was verbally and physically abused by his father.

“I think I’ve evolved as a person,” he said. “I’ve always been accountable for the things I did and said. I’ve apologized for that certain situation and that’s all I can really do.

“That [apology] came from the heart and I knew that I needed to be better.”

Coaches on notice  

The conduct of several NHL coaches has recently come under scrutiny following allegations of physical and mental abuse or misconduct. Since late November, these revelations have cost Bill Peters of the Calgary Flames and Jim Montgomery of the Dallas Stars their jobs, while Marc Crawford was suspended from his role as an assistant with Chicago. Former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has also come under scrutiny for past actions.

Instead of using threats and bullying, Burrows (who was coached by Crawford both in Vancouver and in Ottawa, where he finished his playing career) believes that today’s coaches must communicate with players. “In my day, when you came to the rink and the coach had to talk to you, it wasn’t a good sign,” he chuckled. “No news, good news.

Alexandre Burrows of Vancouver and Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild are separated by a linesman following a fight. During his 11 years with the Canucks, Burrows amassed 1,066 penalty minutes. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

“Nowadays, I feel the new generation … we talk to them a lot more. We give them a lot more information on an everyday basis. We show them video.”

Coaches must also realize the outside pressures modern players face.

“They put more pressure on themselves,” said Burrows. “Outside noise gets to them from social media, from their agent, their parents and friends.

“For us, we always try to keep it as honest as possible, let them know what’s happening, what’s going on, why we are making certain decisions, so they know exactly where they stand. We have good relationships with our players, and I think they really like it.”

A new perspective

The deaths of two teammates have also deeply impacted Burrows. Luc Bourdon, a 21-year-old Canucks defenceman, died in a motorcycle accident in May of 2008 and Rick Rypien, a 27-year-old forward who played for Vancouver and had signed with the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead at his home in August 2011. Rypien had a history of depression.

“Those are guys I’d like to be here today,” said Burrows. Dealing with mental illness, an issue few talked about at one time, is a reality today’s coaches must face.

Burrows says that the coaching staff at Laval makes sure players know that they are always available to discuss issues.

Having been an underdog for most of his career has shaped Burrows’ perspective as a coach. He played junior hockey with Shawinigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. And his path to the NHL led through teams like the Greenville Grrrowl, Baton Rouge Kingfish and Columbia Inferno of the ECHL. After a couple of stints with the AHL Manitoba Moose, he finally earned a spot on the Canucks.

“I think I’ve seen pretty much all of it, playing in the East Coast League, playing in the American league, then finally making it to the NHL,” he said. “I have a great group of players in Laval. They put so much pressure on themselves to succeed and achieve their dream of playing in the NHL.

“My job is to help them get there. Everybody’s got their unique situation. We’re all helping them out, wanting them to get better every day. If they put in the work and make the sacrifices and keep believing in themselves, I think all my players can possibly play in the NHL one day.”

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