Brent Burns has two passions: animals and the military.
“So I don’t know if I’ll be working at the zoo or get into the National Guard,” the winger-turned-defenceman said of life after hockey.
The San Jose and Team Canada star — meaty beard, meagre teeth — was dressed in a blue tuxedo, complete with bowtie, yet his personality managed to outduel his appearance. (If he was going for the “James Bond meets wookie” look, dude nailed it.)
He spoke excitedly about his charity work with Defending the Blue Line, and his efforts to bring military families to hockey games and practices had helped land him the 2015 NHL Foundation Award.
But we got him chatting about that other passion, too.
Fitting that a Shark wants to swim with one. Appropriate that the only NHL player with his own evolution chart is a big animal guy, and has been since he can remember.
So we asked Burns a simple question that led to a lengthy and wonderful monologue:
What is your favourite animal?
“It’s usually the last animal I see. We went to a Shark Reef here in Vegas, and they had a sea turtle that was bigger than… [points] that podium over there. It was unbelievable. Over 56 years old. I’ve always loved sea turtles; I got a chance to swim with them.
“We tried to cage-dive with sharks [in Australia], but most of the cage-diving is in Adelaide and we weren’t there. I wanted to do it; I’m more afraid of jumping out of a plane—I think that’s kinda crazy. I think it would be worse not ever knowing how big a white shark is. I think it’s going to be the size of this [large conference] room and it’s going to bury you in one bite.
“I love mammals. I love gorillas—it’s crazy to watch them. Big cats I love. I’m not a big spider guy; I don’t like spiders. But I’ve always loved snakes, reptiles, Komodo dragons.”
After the 2014-15 season and his gold-medal run with Canada at the IIHF World Championship, Burns flew to Australia to take part in Stop Concussions’ Ice Hockey Classic. While he was there, of course, he made a point of visiting the zoos and seeing as many animals as possible.
“I always wanted to go there since I was 10, watching Steve Irwin [the Crocodile Hunter] on TV. For me being a big animal guy, it’s always been on the bucket list,” Burns explained.
“We went to the Steve Irwin Zoo and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, went to some famous beaches there—Bondi Beach, Surfers Paradise. It was so different than I thought. I thought everywhere you walk, something would be trying to kill you. Jellyfish. Sharks. Snakes. Spiders. It was cool.
“Most of the animals are up north, in Darwin. But it was cool to go to the Steve Irwin Zoo and hear about the crocs. I learned more in their half-hour croc show than I could’ve ever known. It was awesome.
“The zoo rules are different over there. You’re walking in with 200 kangaroos everywhere. Pay two bucks for a bag of food, and you can feed everything there. If you want to go hang out with a tiger, just pay money. Go hang out with a tiger. I don’t know if it would work in the U.S. like that, but it was unbelievable.
Gotta See It (2008 Throwback): Brent Burns’ home zoo on “Inside Hockey”
“I’ve always been a big animal guy. Reptiles came later. When I started playing in the NHL, I hated reptiles—they creeped me out. But getting a cat or a dog, you need to be with them all the time, and we go on the road all the time so I couldn’t do it.
“But reptiles, you can throw 100 crickets in there and they’re fine for a long road trip. So that’s how my passion for them grew slowly. Snakes took a while. I’d have oven mitts on when I handled them for six, seven months. Lizards I was easier with. I started with lizards and then went to snakes.
“I’d have a tiger if my wife would let me, but she kiboshed that.”