Alexandre Burrows was on his third ECHL team in three years when he decided he’d give himself until Christmas to determine if professional hockey was right for him. It was in the midst of the 2003-04 season, and while he was playing professionally in South Carolina, that Burrows had friends graduating from university.
If things wouldn’t work out, Burrows would have to follow suit, and hit the books to embark on a second career as a gym teacher.
“I’m a big sports fan. I watch every sport that’s out there. I like to watch, I like to study how guys prepare. So I think (being a) Phys. Ed teacher would have been my call of duty,” Burrows said.
Fortunately for him, he wasn’t destined for the world of teaching.
Burrows would have his best ECHL season that year, resulting in 29 goals and 73 points in 64 games. It was enough to garner the attention of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose the following season as the NHL began its dreaded, season-long lockout. He then parlayed games with the Moose into a 13-year NHL career that allowed him to ride shotgun with the Sedin twins in Vancouver and play for a Stanley Cup, among other highlights.
Now, he’s teaching. Or more specifically, he's imparting wisdom from behind the bench for a club he admired in his youth, and even in his playing days when he’d watch their games ahead of playing his own, the Montreal Canadiens.
“I’ve always been a big Canadiens fan. They’ve been my team forever. Even if I’ve had many great years in Vancouver with the Canucks. Sometimes, my teammates chirped me because I wanted to watch the Canadiens at 4 p.m. before we played later that night.”
But he’s proving to be more than just a simple assistant coach. He’s been a big help for the Canadiens’ power play, which has been mediocre over the last few seasons.
Since joining Feb. 24 as an assistant coach following the firings of head coach Claude Julien and associate head coach Kirk Muller, the Canadiens have scored six power-play goals in seven games. The Canadiens had just 10 in 18 games prior to their firings.
What explains the change? Why is this power play working better than the one that started the season?
“The compete level that we have. We have to have that five-on-five mentality that when the puck’s loose, we have to out-number (the opponent). Having the puck and (working) hard to get the puck back. That has been ingrained in us since (Burrows) has come in. We’re executing it,” Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry said.
The wild thing is, Burrows wasn’t necessarily known for being a primary power-play weapon. He even had a season, back in 2008-09, where he scored 28 goals and none of them came on the power play.
However, it didn’t stop him from sitting in on power-play meetings in his playing days, learning from coaches like Ryan Walter and Newell Brown, even when he wasn’t supposed to be deployed in such a role.
“What else was I going to do? I might as well try to learn more, see what our power play was trying to do. If I was the next man up, I wanted to make sure that I knew what my role was going to be. What I should be looking for. So, that’s why I would go in there and sit in these meetings. I just liked it. That’s pretty much it,” Burrows said.
“Instead of eating bagels in the lounge, I would rather be in there and make sure that if my name was going to be called upon to be the next guy up, I was going to be ready for it.”
Burrows had to be ready when he got a phone call from Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, not long after the Canadiens lost to the Ottawa Senators in a shootout. He was an assistant coach with the Canadiens’ minor-league affiliate, the Laval Rocket. But as the Canadiens were on the verge of sliding in the standings, Bergevin felt changes needed to be made.
“I was a bit in shock. My wife was waiting for me to sleep and I told her ‘No, I’ve got to pack my bags for tomorrow. I’m going to coach the Canadiens’,” Burrows said.
Had he not received that call, Burrows would have been at the Bell Centre the next day. The Rocket were slated to host the American Hockey League team that gave him a chance, the Moose.
Instead, he was whisked away to Ottawa where he joined the Canadiens on a flight to Winnipeg as the team’s newest assistant coach. He’d have to work alongside Dominique Ducharme, the assistant turned interim head coach following the firing of Julien, with little time (the next day) to prepare the players against the Jets.
The NHL veteran wasted no time trying to implement his power-play tactics into action. He had them working on the power play during their morning skate ahead of his first game behind an NHL bench.
It’s since paid off.
There’s much more movement among players on the power play and goals are coming from a balanced attack, whether from forwards like Tomas Tatar or defencemen like Jeff Petry, who continues making his case for Norris Trophy consideration.
Burrows also hopes to get more production out of captain Shea Weber. He hadn’t scored a power-play goal since Jan. 28, before Wednesday night’s game against Vancouver.
“For me, I have different units. And with Shea, when he’s on the flanks for that one-timer, I’d love to see him tee it off every time he has a chance. If we’re able to tee it up for him, that would be a great play,” Burrows said.
If the Canadiens' power play continues to improve, you can chalk it up to the man who once sat in power-play meetings, just in case.
The lessons he’s learned from his coaches are seemingly serving him well as an assistant coach for the team he’s loved since he was a child.
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