Brent Burns has been talking for nearly an hour about bears climbing trees and RVing and winter toques with bells on them and timber wolves and his NHL Draft experience and surfing and Joe Thornton and cycling and the merits of the travel-size Vitamix blender, but the time comes when, even though you don’t want to, you feel you have to let him go. This interview was supposed to run only 15 minutes. That’s impossible, since the San Jose Sharks defenceman spent nearly that much time discussing what animal he’d like to see next in person.
“I could watch a gorilla all day,” Burns says. “Giraffes. Elephants. I love bison. Just looking at a bison, I love that. Any primate-—just to see their movement. It’s insane. Cats. I love watching cats.”
That leads Burns to a story about navigating his 45-foot RV through a drive-through zoo in Williams, Ariz. “Bearizona,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”
Fewer than 10 minutes into this interview, it becomes clear that the intended premise is a disservice to Burns. And to hockey fans. And to good, fun conversation, really. The plan was to focus on hockey and on his serious side (he does have one), because Burns is in the midst of what could be the best season of his career. Besides, it’s a well-documented fact that he is unlike any player in the NHL: the lack of teeth, the many tattoos, the wild beard, the zany suits. We wanted to do something different. But how can you talk to a man who’s been bitten by a cheetah and not ask him what it’s like to get bitten by a cheetah? It’s impossible.
“What are you writing about?” Burns asks about 40 minutes in. “Is this just about everything?”
Fair question, considering the breadth of topics covered. Burns reads about himself online, and he’s found a common thread. “Everything’s always about, ‘I’m crazy snake guy and animal guy.’ I am that. I am a crazy guy,” he says. “But it would be nice if everybody doesn’t think of me as a joker on skates, because I don’t think I am.”
And so we agree to take a more serious route. Or try to, at least. But then conversation shifts to the time he took the RV to Colorado’s mountains and the altitude made all his bike tires blow, along with the 12 bags of ketchup and all-dressed chips he’d brought from Canada because you can’t get them in the U.S. “I’m just crushed,” Burns recalls. “I’ve got no bike tires left, no potato chips…”
Sometimes, you just have to let a guy tell his story.
Speaking of which, that’s harder than it sounds. This interview was supposed to happen in Detroit, but it got cancelled along with that day’s practice. Getting Burns on the phone took a month because the 31-year-old father of two with “many passions and many hobbies,” as he puts it (that’s a wild understatement), will think he’s free on a Wednesday afternoon but realize at the last minute he’s taking his son and daughter to jiu-jitsu, and there’s no way he’s missing that.
There is no shortage of interest around the Sharks’ No. 1 blueliner, either. He just signed an eight-year extension worth north of $60 million after a career-high 75 points last season made him a finalist for the Norris Trophy and helped push the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. Burns led the NHL in points through the bulk of October, and he’s been a fixture among the top defencemen in the league in scoring. A couple of days after our conversation, he scored his seventh of the season-—a quick inside-out move in front that went off New Jersey defenceman Kyle Quincey—to tie Shea Weber for most goals among blueliners through 19 games. And no defenceman had more than Burns through November.
That he’s reached such lofty heights comes as a surprise to many who knew him as a younger player, including the NHL GM who drafted him 20th overall back in 2003. Doug Risebrough—then with Minnesota—did not think Burns would be this good. Yes, Risebrough drafted him as a right-winger, because that’s what he was back then, but even after Wild coach Jacques Lemaire converted Burns to a blueliner, Risebrough didn’t expect him to become one of the NHL’s best. “That speaks to Brent more than anything,” Risebrough says.
He remembers watching Burns’s rookie season and thinking his puck control had improved. Then Burns asked the GM if he could bring his stickhandling coach to practice. “I said, ‘You have a stickhandling coach?’” Risebrough says. “It just shows there are no limits in Brent Burns’s mind to getting better.”
That Burns is still learning is in part because his thirst for knowledge is non-stop, and also because he was a bit of a late bloomer. When he was growing up in Lindsay, Ont., and playing in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, he was a small kid. “I still think of myself as a small player,” says Burns, who’s now six-foot-five and 230 lb. “I think it helped my skating and my puckhandling.”
Stan Butler coached Burns in Brampton, Ont., in 2002–03, during Burns’s lone season in the Ontario Hockey League, and remembers they drafted a winger with great mobility and hands who was five-foot-11—but when he showed up at camp months later, he stood six-foot-two.
“He was a happy kid with lots of energy,” Butler recalls. “He had no tattoos. He had no beard. I mean, he was 16 years old. Most kids aren’t tatted up at 16.” (Actually, Burns got his first tattoo at 11. He says he couldn’t grow a solid beard until he was 25, though.)
After Christmas of that first OHL season, when the team lost players to the world juniors and to injuries, Burns’s game took off. Most of his 40 points came in the second half of the year. “It’s the tale of two seasons in that one season for me,” says Burns, who posted 11 points in 11 playoff games that year. “That’s when people realized how good he could be,” says Butler. “I thought he was gonna be a heck of a right-winger.”
On his draft day in June 2003, Burns sat in the crowd in Nashville beside his dad. They played a guessing game, calling each pick seconds before it was announced. “My dad was getting them all right, and I was getting mad,” Burns says.
When Robert Burns pointed out that Lemaire liked intelligent guys who played both ways, he figured Burns’s Brampton teammate, centreman Kamil Kreps, would be the Wild’s first-rounder. “So when they said, ‘From the Brampton Battalion…,’ I was like, ‘Oh, you’re such a shithead, how are you getting all these right?’” Burns says. “And then they said ‘winger’ and they picked me and I kind of blacked out.”
Butler remembers watching Burns walk up to the stage dressed in a white suit. He laughed and said to himself: “That’s Burnzie.” “He looked good in it, too,” says Butler, chuckling. “Even at that age, he didn’t care. He’s an individual. He wasn’t concerned about what other people thought.”
No, Burns wasn’t, and still isn’t these days when it comes to style, though he has learned a thing or two since the draft. The most important lesson: “You probably don’t wear a short-sleeve dress shirt.”
Burns says that white draft suit, which he still owns (his brother wore it recently, and not for Halloween, either) is “probably one of the lower-key ones I’ve got now.” He has always been a little out-there, style-wise, from as far back as he can remember. “I thought they were really great outfits, but they were very highly questionable outfits,” he says of his grade-school garb.
Staples included bright blue Adidas track suits with yellow stripes, bomber coats and anything camouflage. He also carried his grandpa’s rucksack from World War II, which came in handy when he had to lug around his mother’s homemade toques, which he’d sell to classmates.
“You remember back in the day, they used to wear the long toques, with the dragon tails?” Burns asks. “My mom was unbelievable. She used to make them all the time. I’d be at school and I’d be selling them for her to all the kids.”
He’s pretty sure there are still some hats in his parents’ basement. “I might have to tell her to make us some for the Sharkies,” he says. And wouldn’t it be great if he and a shirtless Thornton had been wearing those long dragon-tail toques while they were walking around in Pittsburgh earlier this season, a moment captured on camera by a fan? “As long as we don’t wear the hats like the Red Hot Chili Peppers wear the socks…,” he says, laughing. “That’s where we get in trouble.”
But back to that serious side. As Risebrough puts it: “He’s not totally what you see. He’s carefree, not careless.”
“Ooh,” Burns says when told about his former GM’s comment. “I like that quote.”
Burns does feel the need to remind people that he takes his job seriously, because his massive beard and the Chewbacca mask he wore at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition last season don’t exactly hammer that point home.
“Everybody jokes around about RVing all summer and working out at Walmarts,” he says, which he did this off-season. “But I’m pretty serious about [training]. I know I’ve got to be getting in better shape every year.”
And Burns says he feels like he’s “getting better every year, and will continue to do so.” Tell him that that’s a rarity for a player in his 30s and he’ll direct your attention to his friend, Thornton. (“Jumbo” comes up in conversation all the time. Case in point: When Burns describes the time the cheetah bit him at a zoo in Columbus, which he says was “a pretty cool experience,” he adds that “‘Jumbo’ never checked on how I was doing. He just laughed the whole time.”)
Burns gets chirped a lot for carrying a backpack, and for taking four bags on the road, but he needs to carry around things like his blender and smoothie ingredients. Former Sharks coach Todd McLellan convinced Burns he needed a routine back in 2011. “It’s taken a long time to develop,” Burns says, but he’s got it down to a science now.
And since Vitamix came out with a travel-size blender, life’s even better. “It was a game-changer for this guy,” he says, launching into a description of why he needs the blender to create his homemade coffee brew, which contains a bunch of ingredients that require googling, including Kerrygold butter and MCT oil. Burns says you can smell his coffee slow-dripping from two rooms away.
With the interview clock ticking toward an hour, it’s time for a final question: What hasn’t Burns done that he’d like to do next? “Well, hockey, I want to win the Stanley Cup,” he says. “Life-wise? Um, I’m really excited about the RV.”
This leads to another tangent about how lush Colorado is, and the red mountains in Utah, and how his “little mutant” kids didn’t want to enjoy the view—they just wanted to play on the slide in the trailer park and watch Zootopia for the 650th time. “I could pretty much write the screenplay to that movie right now, off my head.”
Is there anything else he’d like to add before he hangs up? Burns laughs. “That’s my life, right there,” he says. “I talk about everything from butterflies to the sky.”
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