VANCOUVER – There were a thousand things Alex Burrows had to learn to make his unimaginable journey from an ECHL tryout to the Vancouver Canucks’ Ring of Honour.
The major lessons for the undrafted ball hockey player from Montreal included learning to believe in himself, how to be a pro, to make himself versatile and valuable, then dependable and disciplined and, finally, an impactful two-way winger on the best forward line in the National Hockey League – a unit on which linemates Henrik and Daniel Sedin won scoring titles and MVP awards.
But during that spectacular odyssey from oblivion to immortality, Burrows swears he never learned to speak dolphin.
“He always said me and Henrik kind of had a fake language, like dolphins,” Daniel Sedin explained Monday. “I don’t know where he got that from, but it made us laugh. But if me and Henrik had that language, I think Burr spoke it, too. He was kind of half-Swedish when he was on the ice because he certainly understood how me and Henrik wanted to play hockey.”
Burrows did chirp. Too much. But never like a dolphin.
“People maybe don’t realize we had a lot of set plays,” Burrows said of the powerful chemistry he built with the twins, who will see their old linemate’s name and image added to the interior of Rogers Arena before the Canucks’ game Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators. “We knew where we were going to go off faceoffs, knew where we wanted to go on forechecks, how we were going to break out. The way they talked to each other was just noises they used to make, so in a split-second they’d know where they needed to be. So I told them they talked like dolphins. It was just sounds.”
Burrows understood the sounds well enough to score 127 goals over a four-year span playing mostly with the Sedins. That period, from 2008-09 through 2011-12, was the peak of the most successful era in franchise history, as the Canucks won four division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and made it to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Henrik Sedin won the NHL scoring title and Hart Trophy in 2010, his brother the Art Ross and Ted Lindsay awards the following season. The Sedins’ uniform numbers will be retired by the Canucks in February.
“He was so smart,” Henrik said of Burrows. “We played with other smart hockey players, but I think Burr really understood how we wanted to play hockey and where we wanted the puck. In a sense, he was no different for me than playing with Daniel. Burr was the same type of player as we were. I think a lot of times people mistook the way we played as fancy or flashy. But it was just putting the puck in the right area where the other guy wanted it. And that was him.”
Part of what made Burrows with the Sedins such a compelling combination is that their backgrounds and personalities seemed so disparate.
Burrows began as a minor-league scrub who thought he’d finally cashed in when he earned a promotion to the American Hockey League from the ECHL that carried a salary of $40,000. Canadian. The Sedins were second- and third-overall draft picks who never spent a day in the minors before becoming, after some difficult early years in the NHL, two of the best players on the planet.
The Swedes also became lauded for their sportsmanship and character, while the trash-talking Burrows was one of the most hated players in the game outside Vancouver.
Former Los Angeles King Patrick O’Sullivan, one of the retired players now accusing former Canuck coach Marc Crawford of mental and physical abuse, revealed in 2015 that Burrows taunted him about the child abuse O’Sullivan had suffered at the hands of his father. Burrows apologized. He said it was his job as a young player to get inside the “kitchen” of opponents, and that he didn’t realize earlier in his career how damaging his words were.
“There was stuff where he knows – because he came out and said it – that he crossed the line,” Henrik said. “But we (the Sedins) heard so much from players on other teams; he was that guy for us. Once the game was over, there were times where Burr would say: ‘Dang, I shouldn’t have said that.’”
Alex Burrows said “Dang?”
“No, that was not a direct quote,” Henrik said.
“I think we all evolve as human beings,” Burrows said Monday. “I remember as a kid, my school bus driver was smoking darts on the bus. People smoked on airplanes. Society evolves. Looking back, there was stuff that I said that I’d like to take back, stuff that I did that I’d do differently now. I think I changed my philosophy, changed how I played the game. I’m accountable for what I did.”
Burrows’ evolution as a player was indisputable.
“First few years, I was an energy guy – an agitator on the fourth line,” he said. “Then I was on a checking line, and then I was promoted to the No. 1 line just as the twins were starting to get into their prime. The timing of it all was just perfect for me.
“You always try to get better, never be satisfied. Always show confidence in yourself. Work hard and believe in yourself. That’s the message I give to a younger generation.”
The 38-year-old, who finished his career in Ottawa two years ago after playing 12 seasons and 822 games for the Canucks, delivers that message these days as an assistant coach with the Laval Rocket, the minor-league affiliate of Burrows’ hometown Montreal Canadiens.
He and his wife, Nancy, have three children under age nine. Many friends and members of the Burrows family have travelled to Vancouver for Tuesday’s pre-game ceremony.
“I think it’s neat because it shows young players, kids, that you don’t have to be the best player on your team when you’re 12 or 15,” Daniel Sedin said. “You can take the long road to the NHL and still be successful. That’s an important lesson for parents, kids, everyone. Burr wasn’t flashy as a player. He didn’t have the best shot, wasn’t the best skater. But he still was successful. You can play hockey the right way, work hard, put your head down and still go a long way.”
Henrik said: “He was maybe not the best linemate we ever worked with, but he was the linemate who worked the best with us.”
Many fans remember Burrows’s finest moment as his Game 7 overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks at the start of the Canucks’ playoff run in 2011. But Burrows remembers his first game playing with the Sedins against the St. Louis Blues in 2009, and the feeling he had later in that 2011 spring when Kevin Bieksa’s goal in the conference final eliminated the San Jose Sharks and put the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final.
Long-time Canuck coach Alain Vigneault, who had Burrows in Vancouver after they were together in the minors in Winnipeg in 2005-06, remembers the winger scoring shorthanded against the Carolina Hurricanes to end an eight-game Canucks losing streak on Feb. 3, 2009. Two games and one week later, Vigneault moved Burrows alongside the Sedins in St. Louis.
“He saved my job twice,” Vigneault smiled, referring to the epic goals against Carolina and Chicago. “I loved him. I remember the Canucks calling us (in the AHL) and asking who was my best player. I said it was Alex Burrows. He went up to the NHL and never came back.”