From his fear of snakes to his Norris Trophy nomination, Brent Burns is the NHL's most colorful player.
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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Beyond the colossal 44-½-foot RV backed into the driveway, the first thing visitors notice upon entering Brent Burns’s home is a life-sized, armored medieval knight keeping watch over the foyer, spear at his side. Fear not, though, for this is a welcoming place.
Burns invited me here one day after practice in late April, between the Sharks’ first-round win over Los Angeles and the start of their Western Conference semifinals series against Nashville. He kicked off his shoes, offered a cheery hello to the cleaning crew and walked out back, underneath the American flags gifted to him by military units that hang over the kitchen and the unopened Brent Burns Chia Pet box sitting on the counter.
Burns and his wife, Susan, bought this place in 2012, after his first season with San Jose. It’s close enough to the team's practice facility that he enjoys biking there in the summer. He also likes the spacious backyard where sometimes the family pitches tents, lights a fire, grills meat, toasts s’mores and camps out under the stars. Right now, he’ll settle for tossing some chicken onto the Green Egg while his two huskies, Zeus and Maia, lounge at his feet.
It was a beautiful afternoon, as afternoons often are in San Jose, and much of our conversation over the next four hours made it into a feature story in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. Yes, Burns fully embraces the public’s image of him that he calls “being a goofy donkey.” For instance, during lunch, he’ll open a package of beard wax that had been gifted by a company and begin working his mustache into a curl. “This is pretty soft, this one,” he says. “It’ll be hard to get the twist.”
The story in SI also explores what led Burns to become a Norris Trophy finalist this season, when he scored more goals (27) than any NHL defenseman since Mike Green in 2008-09, and the substance behind his many, many passions. The 300-or-so snakes Burns once owned were given to a friend when he moved here, and what he and his wife had initially budgeted to serve as a reptile room now houses supplies for Susan’s job in interior design. But topics like wine, whiskey, martial arts, surfing, golfing, camping, biking, cartoons, samurai history, tea, yoga and the military help occupy his time. “There’s not enough time in the day for all that stuff,” he says. “I just love life.”
As you can imagine, plenty of topics also didn’t make the cut, so enjoy these leftovers from an afternoon with Brent Burns:
1. Zest runs through his veins
It’s easy to see where Burns gets his spirit. His great grandfather, Patrick Joseph Burns, enlisted in the Canadian Army for World War I sporting tattoos on his left arm (a ship between two flags, a butterfly, a soldier with his hands clasped, and the word May), his right arm (an eagle, the stars and stripes, and the words Good Luck), and around his neck (birds and roses). His grandfather, Patrick Joseph Burns Jr., fought in the European theater of World War II, then later became a semi-pro wrestler, “back in the days where wrestling was like the TV wrestling, but it hadn’t gone to TV yet,” says Rob Burns, Brent’s dad. “It was more good guy, bad guy. A lot of it was staged.” Rob, meanwhile, currently bikes every day to his job at a craft brewery outside Toronto, and was the one who allowed Brent to get his first tattoo—when Brent was 11 years old.
Rob, a former goalie, also tried making fitness fun for his children, telling them to always take stairs two at a time. A trampoline in the backyard was a neighborhood favorite. And Brent conducted his paper route on roller blades. “We’d make a game of it, so it wouldn’t get monotonous,” he says. “We used to have fun walking around the house like a duck, so you’d be in a full squat walking, making duck sounds and farting around, stuff like that.”
The military connections also inform Burns’s love for the outdoors. “As a kid I always wanted to be a Green Beret, just MacGyver my way out of a bamboo tree and make a house,” he says. “That’s how I thought about it. That’s always the way I thought of the Green Berets. These guys are supermen. That was my perfect world. They can do anything. Fix a car, make a house out of a leaf, you’d be good to go. That’s always what I thought.” In fact, whenever Brent’s mother pulled him from school to take him to the rink, his response to teachers who protested was, “I’m either going to play hockey or go into the military.”
For now, camping and traveling help satisfy these urges. (The story contains much about this, including the 15 days Burns spent working out in Walmart parking lots and on highway shoulders.) After the Sharks missed the playoffs last season, which led to the club parting ways with coach Todd McLellan and hiring Pete DeBoer, the Burns family hit the road. First they drove to Disneyland. Next came camp for Team Canada in Austria, then the world championships in Prague, where Burns was named the top defenseman. Then they vacationed in the Peloponnese and Bodrum, Turkey. They flew home briefly before jetting to New Zealand and Australia for a barnstorming tour to benefit the Stop Concussions Foundation, then it was back stateside for the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas, where Burns received one for his charitable work. Finally, from Aug. 3 to Aug. 18, they zigzagged the country in the family’s tricked-out Sprinter van, from which Burns had to remove the disco ball and fog machine when he first bought it.
2. Burns on his physique
“I’ve got a milk body. Got to work. Hard to keep my hockey pants fitting.”
3. The meaning behind the value of Burns’s contract
When GM Doug Wilson and fellow Sharks brass arrived in the Twin Cities for the 2011 NHL Draft, they were dead-set on pilfering one of the favorite locals. “When that guy becomes available, you’ve got to swing for the fences and go get him,” Wilson says today. “And we did. We were not going to lose that deal. We were not going to lose not getting Brent Burns.”
After paying Minnesota the price of Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and the 28th overall pick, Wilson quickly set about negotiating an extension for Burns, who was slated to enter unrestricted free agency several days later. “You don’t give up what we gave up and not keep this player” Wilson says. “We wanted this guy. I don’t want to say he was the heir apparent to Danny Boyle, but [Danny] was getting up there in age. You need that type of player to be successful in this league, and there might only be five of them in the league."
The two sides reached terms on Aug. 1, settling on five years at $5.76 million in average annual value. Those alone were not particularly noteworthy numbers, but the overall value of Burns’s new contract—$28.8 million—carried specific meaning.
Burns’s love for the number 8, which he wore for the Wild, came from Jari Byrski, who runs the Toronto-based Sk8On hockey school. Burns began training with Byrski at age 8, proposed to Susan on 8/8/08, and would later don 88 for the Sharks. (Much later, on the road that summer, Burns would steal the No. 88 tag from a Whataburger in Texas.) So Burns asked agent Ron Salcer if they could work out a deal wherein the contract included his favorite digit. “Brent said, ‘Do you think it could be this?’” Salcer recalls. “I called up Doug Wilson and said, ‘Could we do it with this number?’ He said, ‘O.K. You’ve got a deal.’”
4. Agent Ron Salcer on the uniqueness of his client
“People see him and think there’s some crazy guy. I’ve got six guys in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and by far he is the most colorful, unique individual I’ve ever dealt with. And I’ve had incredible clients. He reads things. It’s not like he flies off the handle. Who sits and reads? I went back with him to Slovakia to look at Marian Gaborik’s hockey rink. He’s going 120 miles an hour. Burnsie is reading a Harry Potter book. I look at him. ‘Burnsie, are you f---ing kidding me?’ ‘What’s the big deal?’ he says."
5. Venom Hunters snake guru Brian Barczyk on hosting the Sharks at his facility
“Some of them are great. [Joe] Thornton was awesome. But he’s definitely freaked out about things. I’ll never forget, I’ve got couches in my front office and we were talking … Colin White, Jumbo [Thornton] and Burnsie, and you’re like 'we’ve got to get a picture with a big snake.' Jumbo’s like 'I don't know man.' Let’s do it! We pulled out an 18-foot python, draped it over him, they all did well. I’d say the most serious guy that’s been over has been Patty Marleau. The guy had ice in his veins, man. It was crazy. A python struck at him. I opened the cage, and he was never in danger to get bitten, but it came maybe a foot away from him. Most people they’d freak out. He never flinched, but Burnsie ran out of the room. Burnsie screamed and ran and Patty stood there like a statue. I was like, dude. Patty even handled a tarantula that time. He was by far the most brave.”
6. Thornton on the time Burns met a cheetah
“We were in a zoo in Columbus. We’re there and these cheetahs are out, and these are beautiful creatures. Just to see one is very, very cool. We got to go real with them and hold onto them. Burnsie was the first guy. He wanted to get in there and hold this huge cheetah. Like, they’re not small. This thing’s long and big. ‘I’ll do it,’ Burnsie says. So Burnsie’s petting this cheetah, and all of a sudden the cheetah lunges at Burnsie and bites him. And me and [Colin White] look at each other like, what the f—just happened? And he took it like, no big deal. It was so weird. He got bit by a cheetah. How many guys could say that and live? The way he handled it was, of course I’m going to get bit by a cheetah. WE were both terrified and he took it like no big deal, just a little scratch. He must’ve had a mark of the two teeth and a bruise there [on his ribs] for a little while. I think he does have a cheetah tattoo on him now too.
7. Three terms of endearment in the Burns household
8. The names of Burns’s first two snakes, which he bought for “$15 or so” at Petsmart, largely to cure his fear of snakes
Girlfriend and Boyfriend
9. The contents of Burns’s giant camouflage backpack, which he carries everywhere
“I’ve got bands, fitness bands, yoga strap, a blender at all times in there. A Nutribullet. I’ve got the bigger one in the bag. We’ve got the Nutribullet, sometimes shoes or workout gear, usually a lot of drink packets, vitamins. I’ve got my watch and heart-rate monitor. Just everyday stuff. I like to have it with me.”
10. Sneak attack
To work alongside Burns is to understand that an impromptu wrestling match can erupt at any moment. Colleagues in Minnesota recall him knocking on hotel doors and, when they swung open, bursting in, hunting for the arm bar. “I’m the only one who tapped him out,” says John Scott, the NHL All-Star Game folk legend who played with Burns in both Minnesota and San Jose. “He’d wrestle everybody, and finally I wrestled him and I tapped him out. I’m 1-0 against him. I think I jumped on his back and choked him out. I was so much bigger than him. I’m a lot bigger than he is and a little more stronger. I might’ve surprised him a little bit.”
“He was so talented, but very undisciplined. He would do something crazy and unbelievable, but then he’d be out of position for three straight plays and be –2. You could tell he was going to be really good. You just didn’t know how or when.
“He’s just so happy-go-lucky about it, worked hard. He just did his thing. He has a good attitude when it comes to hockey. He doesn’t get down too much. He doesn’t get too high on things when he’s going good. I think he knew he had that confidence that he was good, and that’s what he rode.
“I think he matured and realized what he can and can’t do, just came of age with his game. He’s definitely toned down a little bit, but not too much. He picks his spots a little more. He’s probably the best defenseman in the game.”