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Burns leaves Montreal for Toronto

TORONTO -- Montreal Canadiens Coach Pat Burns left the highest- pressure job in the NHL Friday to sign a four-year contract to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs.

'I want to get at it, and I want to get at it right now. I want to make the Toronto Maple Leafs a better hockey club,' Burns, 40, told reporters in Montreal.

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Later in Toronto, Burns said he had decided to quit after taking a vacation after the season, and said he informed the Canadiens Monday of his decision.

Burns' agent, Don Meehan, said he approached Toronto President Cliff Fletcher Wednesday and received 'an enthusiastic response'. They reached agreement on a contract, apparently worth in excess of $1 million, Thursday night.

After four years with the Canadiens, Burns agreed to a two-year extension with Montreal during the season. However, when the Adams Division champion Canadiens collapsed in the second round for the second straight year against Boston, criticism of Burns mounted and Montreal General Manager Serge Savard found it necessary to make a statement of support.

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'In sports, when we lose, we all have to take the responsiblities,' Savard said Friday. 'I don't blame Pat Burns. I share the responsibility. It's a very tough job to coach the Canadiens when everyone is after you.'

'It's very important that the next coach of the Montreal Canadiens speaks French,' Savard added. 'It is not fair if this coach only speaks English. Media pressure was very tough on Pat Burns and we wish him in his future in his game.'

Burns, although better in English, is fluently bilingual, and Savard most likely brought up the language issue as a warning to those looking to replace him.

Savard said the Canadiens do not have a replacement in mind. Among names suggested as candidates in published reports are Minnesota coach and former Montreal star Bob Gainey, former Quebec and Detroit coach Jacques Demers and former Quebec and New York Rangers coach Michel Bergeron.

In his first season with Montreal, Burns guided the Canadiens to the 1989 Stanley Cup final, losing to Calgary, and won the NHL's Coach of the Year award.

Burns, a former policeman, has always emphasized defense and discipline. The Canadiens allowed only 207 goals this season, 34 fewer than any other team. This hasn't always agreed with Montreal hockey fans, who traditionally have preferred flashier offensive players.

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From the 115-point season in 1988-89, the Canadiens have finished with 93, 89 and 93 points under Burns. Criticism has grown the past two seasons when the Canadiens lost to the Bruins in the division final. This season's exit, in four consecutive games, heightened criticism that Burns' methods were no longer working in Montreal.

Burns has a lifetime 174-104-42 record, and the Canadiens have the best overall winning percentage over the last four seasons.

In Toronto, Burns takes over a 30-43-7 club, which has missed the playoffs the past two years. Coach Tom Watt was fired after the season.

Burns said he saw positive signs in Toronto's second half after a number of Fletcher trades reshaped the team.

'It was a much better team in the second half,' Burns said. 'I think they have it going in the right direction now and I'm glad to be a part of it.'

Burns said: 'Players are going to have to realize what they have to do to win every night. and I'm going to be there to remind them.'

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