The more time you spend in the vicinity of Brent Burns, the more a single thought occupies your mind: This is the way we are supposed to live.
On this day, a hot midsummer one in Toronto, the San Jose Sharks defenceman enters a state-of-the-art workout gym in the Maple Leafs’ practice facility in disguise. His Nick Nolte mugshot hairdo is restrained by a tidy man-bun. His colourful tattoos — the ones not on his calves, at least — are hidden by a short white lab coat. Where a visor would normally go is instead a pair of taped-up, black-rimmed nerd glasses. He’s carrying a clipboard.
Comically and poorly camouflaged as an evaluator here to track the workouts of a dozen teenage hockey hopefuls at Gatorade’s G Camp, Burns’s mind-the-gap-toothed grin (now a promotional home date!) and Teen Wolf beard are an easy giveaway.
The teenagers titter at their surprise assistant. Burns quickly rids himself of the goofy getup; there is no point not being himself.
Over the next three hours, an engaging Burns throws himself into the camp’s activities and campers’ conversations with a verve unmatched by the other six NHL stars who make surprise cameos over the two-day event. He runs around a field firing soft-tipped arrows during archery tag. He laughs off a sneak-attack Gatorade bath from his friend Dominic Moore.
With a wink, Burns asks the gym’s personal trainer to throw on a sweater; his gun show is making the Norris Trophy finalist’s biceps look like water pistols. Burns tries out every apparatus, keen to learn new exercises. A deep V of perspiration marks his chest as he talks NHL eating habits with a junior prospect.
“Some guys never eat steak. Me? I eat steak every day.” Burns says.
Like the marquee names, Burns is getting paid to be here. Just watching him, you wouldn’t have a clue this is a job.
Whatever the polar opposite of the pissed-off piranha that is Phelps Face, that’s the expression of this Shark.
A few months from now Burns will need a new contract. Problem is, he’s priceless.
Four times in the first two minutes of our conversation, Brent Burns uses the word adventure to describe the spring of 2016.
After piling up a personal-best 27 goals and 75 points from the blue line and giving Erik Karlsson a run for his money as the league’s most productive defenceman, Burns went full-blown wookie in quarterbacking San Jose to the first Stanley Cup Final in the franchise’s 25 years. Burns logged more than 25 minutes a night and fired more shots than a Republican convention.
“You gotta shoot to score, so might as well shoot,” he reasons. Somewhere, Jim Corsi grins.
Burns scored 24 points in 24 playoff games, five more than Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby registered in the same number of games. Only teammate Logan Couture (30 points) had more — and he has the advantage of playing forward, Burns’ old position.
“There was a sense that we had a special group, and we had a lot of fun going through that adventure. It really was an unbelievable experience to be part of, being in the finals, going to the next level. That’s what we dream about as kids, but we don’t dream about losing it. So… it sucks,” Burns says.
Yet if you grabbed that chin and wrung out those famous whiskers into a glass, you’d be hard-pressed to find tears spiking the resulting cocktail of sweat and sticky sports drink.
“It was a really fun time playing hockey. Such a fun run, and we played some amazing teams. To conquer each team is a special experience,” he says. “At the end of the day, you’re just crushed emotionally and physically. You can’t do anything else. You didn’t leave anything out there. Other than knowing you didn’t reach your dream, you have to be content and happy with the adventure. You got to use it as motivation the next year, but you can’t change what happened. I have to go home and be happy with my kids and my family and enjoy the summer.”
After the Sharks’ Game 6 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Burns packed his wife Susan and their two kids into the family RV and has been living in it ever since. They drove to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas and detoured through the Grand Canyon en route to see family in Texas. They pointed north to Michigan to see friends, then up to Ontario to see Burns’ family in Barrie, Ont. Next, it was to national parks down through Denver and Vail, where the animal lover pulled over for his famous bike rides.
He loves to see the country, talk to strangers, to surprise and be surprised. The highlight of his summer vacation?
“We were about seven, eight feet from two bull elks and a big female elk,” he says of his Grand Canyon cruise. “That was probably the coolest thing we’ve seen. So cool for the kids to see.”
With Dallas’s Jamie Benn and Tampa’s Victor Hedman signing hefty long-term deals in July, Burns could enter 2016-17 as the league’s most important impending unrestricted free agent. The fifth year of his $28.8-million deal with the Sharks expires July 1. A raise is due.
“You know how we feel about Brent. Phenomenal year,” GM Doug Wilson recently told CSN Bay Area. “There’s no doubt he’s important to us. We want him. I think he loves being here. Those conversations will take place shortly.”
That Wilson must deal with three big elks this season — veteran stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are also on expiring deals — exacts even more pressure on the club to build on 2016’s success. All three California clubs are entrenched in win-now mode, and it’s hard to imagine their Pacific Division foes (Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Arizona) being worse than they were in 2015-16.
Wilson made a nice low-key pickup in defenceman David Schlemko and added big-bodied free agent Mikkel Boedker to bolster an already scary power play.
“He’s fast, skilled,” beams Burns, 31. “I was actually in the middle of Texas on that day with no cell service, so I had no idea what was happening around the league, where guys were signing. It took me about three days to get back into cell service, so when I did, my phone kinda blew up. I started checking the list to see where everybody went, and that was great to see. He’s gonna be good for us.”
Ninety-nine years ago, the NHL rid itself of the rover, yet the waking-dead position has been reborn. As if their weren’t enough things making Burns unique — his road-warrior training, his attachment to the military, his Chewbaccian way of letting his actions speak louder than words — no other player, Dustin Byfuglien included, is quite as versatile as Burns, a forward-turned-defenceman who loves practising faceoffs and is still improving into his thirties.
He put up 11 points in 10 games for the national team at the 2015 World Championship and was critical to Canada’s gold medal at that tournament. This June the earned a spot on the country’s World Cup squad over fellow righties P.K. Subban and Kris Letang.
Team Canada head coach, Mike Babcock, is known for preferring righty-lefty defence pairings. Burns couldn’t care less which side he plays or whom he’s partnered with.
“I just like to play. I don’t worry about that stuff. I play forward, D,” he shrugs. “Put me anywhere, I’ll be fine.”
A brief but busy off-season ends with Burns’ first shot at gold in a true best-on-best senior event and the beginning of what should be a lucrative contract year.
But the player would rather talk about elks and teammates. (Remember, this was the guy who carried All-Star Game hero John Scott on his shoulders.) Forever inclusive, Burns sounds more thrilled that Thornton, too, got a late invite to Team Canada.
“I didn’t know why people weren’t talking about him more. The guy’s dominant. In the league, there’s not many guys who control a game like him—his size, his abilities, his skill is off the charts. Not many better guys than him. It’s awesome,” Burns says.
“He’s a close friend of mine, so when you have someone like that beside you in a short tournament, it’s huge. He’ll be great for everyone on the team. He’s a legend, really.”
Takes one to know one.