Brent Burns may look like the world's biggest leprechaun, but he's steering the Sharks' Stanley Cup road trip.
This story appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
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Imagine being a truck driver or an early-bird commuter cruising the open highways of Texas, Tennessee, Utah, Arizona, or Wherever, U.S.A. Now imagine seeing, out the passenger-side window, a road bicycle whizzing along the shoulder—sleek, custom-made and painted black. “Like the Batmobile,” its owner says. Churning forward, slurping gel packs, the rider looks only at the road ahead. Passersby, however, can’t help but gawk at this sweaty, tattooed, bushy-bearded cyclist—the fittest-looking drifter they’ve ever seen, all 6' 5" and 230 pounds of him squeezed into skintight shorts. Brent Burns can sense their curiosity. It’s tailed him for years. He knows what they are thinking.
What is this weirdo doing?
Excellent question. And what’s with the unmarked Mercedes Sprinter van—30 feet long and also black—that’s honking its horn and stopping on the side of the road? Burns slows to a halt and dismounts, then hangs his bicycle on the back of his family’s vacation home. Before climbing behind the wheel and returning to the highway, he rinses off with the van’s built-in shower—a little garden hose attached to a water tank near the bike rack.
Last summer the Burns clan left their San Jose home on the morning of Aug. 3, three months after Brent had won a gold medal and best defenseman honors with Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF world championships and two months before he began his 12th NHL season and fifth with the Sharks. For 15 days Brent, his wife, Susan, and their two kids drove around North America, covering some 6,000 miles and stopping whenever roadside attractions caught their fancy. Really, the only routines came at dawn, when Burns awoke at the campsite and pedaled toward the nearest highway entrance ramp, and at night, when he worked out wherever there was room. He squatted with weighted vests on the porch of a Michigan family they had met at Disneyland. He practiced yoga in the garage of his wife’s family ranch in Texas. He sprinted up grassy hills near gas stations and trained in supermarket parking lots. “Unreal setup at the Walmart,” he says.
Burns knows how all of this comes across, fully aware of his reputation for “being a goofy donkey,” he says. It is, to an extent, grounded in reality. Burns’s personality is at odds with the typically vanilla sketch of hockey success, a large reason why he is so popular among Sharks diehards and general hockey fans alike. And the better he does on the ice—this season Burns earned his second straight All-Star selection and became just the fourth defenseman in the last 20 years to eclipse 25 goals—the brighter his personality seems to glow.
In 2002–03, his only season with the OHL’s Brampton Battalion, the scrawny teenager helped calm nerves by doing the Worm in the middle of the locker room; when a crew went to see Old School, Burns had everyone howling with laughter when he stepped to the front of the theater and belted out Eminem. “Waving his hands, fake-rapping, walking back and forth,” then teammate Adam Henrich recalls. “People were wondering, Who is this guy?” That June, when the Wild drafted him 20th overall, Burns approached the stage wearing a white suit. “He looked like the guys from Dumb and Dumber,” says his Brampton coach, Stan Butler. Before marrying Susan in ’09, he eschewed a traditional bachelor party and instead took friends to a military base, where they rose before dawn and learned to fire .50-caliber machine guns.
Several years ago Burns’s well-documented affinity for reptiles led him to befriend Brian Barczyk, a wildlife expert based in Detroit who appears on Discovery Channel’s Venom Hunters. The second time they met, Burns was in town for a game against the Red Wings and hustled straight to Barczyk’s 15,000-square-foot facility right off the plane. Still dressed in his suit, Burns quickly found the building’s humidity bothersome. “In the middle of a sentence he just takes his dress pants off, around my wife and everybody,” Barczyk says. “I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing, man? You’re half-naked in my building.’ And he’s like, ‘Man, it’s hot in here.’” And so it was that Burns spent the next hour looking at ball pythons and bearded dragons in a jacket, tie and boxer shorts.
Says Ryan Bowness, an ex-teammate in Brampton who’s now an executive with Winnipeg, “You just laugh and shake your head and say, ‘That’s Burnsie.’”
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But behind the cascading beard that has inspired three parody Twitter accounts (not to mention a Burns Chia Pet giveaway at San Jose’s SAP Center), the top row of missing incisors and the tapestry of colorful tattoos—a look that confused four children into asking for his autograph at Disneyland, having mistaken him for an actual pirate of the Caribbean—hides one of the league’s best blueliners, a towering shot-generating machine and Norris Trophy finalist who did not reach these heights by accident.
It’s just that pigeon-holing him as hockey’s court jester would be to ignore all the substance underneath. Impressively mobile for his size and so versatile that San Jose coach Pete DeBoer compares him to a five-tool baseball player, Burns has been the catalyst for the Sharks, who averaged 2.89 goals per game this season and now lead the West with 3.43 in the playoffs. “You don’t see him being the last guy on the bike when everyone’s gone, or the first guy in there doing weird stretching,” says John Scott, a friend and former teammate in Minnesota and San Jose. “You just see this big goof with a beard who always has a smile on his face.”
The most interesting man in the NHL lives on a spacious, stone-veneered property in the Willow Glen suburb of San Jose, roughly equidistant from the Sharks’ practice facility and their home rink. On this blue-skied Monday in late April, Burns returns home from practice to an empty house, with Susan at work and the kids—daughter Peyton, 6, and son Jagger, 4—at school. Barefoot and wearing sunglasses, he wanders out back and fires up the grill. “Oh, yeah,” Burns says, sparks flying from the charcoals. “We’re cooking now.”
Two days earlier the Sharks had polished off the Kings, the nemeses that had bounced them from the 2013 and ’14 Stanley Cup Playoffs, in five games in the Western Conference quarterfinals. Much of that knockout was owed to Burns, who led all defensemen in the first round with eight points, including five primary assists. He was strong on special teams, dropping to his right knee and hammering a puck past L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick on the power play in Game 4, and at even strength, too; in the 38-plus minutes that Burns skated five-on-five against fellow Norris finalist Drew Doughty, the Sharks out-attempted Los Angeles by 12.
Burns’s most critical contribution, though, came in Game 5, which ended the Kings’ streak of five straight victories over San Jose in elimination games. Less than four minutes into the final period, with the score knotted at 3, Burns joined forwards Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson on the rush. This happens often: Burns developed an acute sense for offensive opportunities while playing right wing in Brampton and on-and-off for several seasons in Minnesota and San Jose. As Donskoi powered toward the net with Doughty draped over him, the winger centered the puck before wrapping around the net. Burns, unmanned in the slot, botched the initial backhanded shovel—“Oh, I whiffed,” he says later—but he made enough contact to find Donskoi back-door for the game-winner. Burns celebrated so hard that his helmet almost flew off.
“He’s very amazed by everything in the world,” says Scott. “Everything is just, Oh, my god.”
Burns’s skill and spirit have always operated in concert like this, because a beard alone does not make someone join Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque as the only defensemen to ever launch 350 shots in a single season. (Burns had 353 this season.) The jiu-jitsu uniform framed on his garage wall and the sparring gloves, autographed by MMA fighter Conor McGregor, inside his gym aren’t just for show; he studied martial arts in Minnesota and once picked up training tips from watching McGregor work out in Las Vegas. Teammates rib Burns about the massive camouflage backpack he lugs around everywhere, but it’s filled with equipment—fitness bands, yoga straps, a Nutribullet blender—that comes in handy on the road. Inside his home gym, statues of Buddha, Ganesh and two Chinese dragons lend a peaceful aesthetic to his cold tub, and his interest in Asian culture led Burns to research herbal teas, which he now sips to recover after games. When he and several Wild teammates started calling themselves the Shooting Squad, it was only because they hit the ice 40 minutes before practice to hone their releases; Burns’s deadliest shot isn’t the booming one-timer expected of skaters his size but rather a quick-trigger snap shot that he can uncork from a standstill at the blue line. Wonder what was gained from biking 30 miles a day over gravel and rumble strips last summer? Look to the 25:52 in ice time Burns averaged during the regular season, seventh most in the league, and the 82 games he played for the second straight year.
“It’s not just a case of a guy having a lot of money and trying to find ways to spend it,” says Doug Risebrough, the GM who drafted Burns. “These are passions. They’re not normal passions, but they’re passions. And there’s detail to them. It’s not just a like. It’s a study, so to speak.”
Consider Burns’s best-known pursuit outside hockey, which has actually taken a back seat in recent years. Aside from his 8-year-old Siberian huskies, Maia and Zeus, lounging near the grill, there are no animals here. When the Wild traded him at the 2011 draft, he gifted Barczyk his menagerie before moving out west, pre-empting the concerns of his San Jose neighbors, one of whom wondered if Burns was “that guy with 500 snakes.” But for a time in Minnesota, caring for his snakes helped Burns decompress after hockey. If he couldn’t sleep, he’d walk downstairs and clean cages.
Borrowing methods from Barczyk, he kept meticulous notes of weights, feeding times and “whether they went to the bathroom.” Breeding snakes was his favorite part, which perhaps explains why his collection grew so large—more than 300 by the end. “Getting the eggs out, getting the incubator ready, then having all the babies, definitely amazing,” he says. In particular, Burns enjoyed cross-matching snakes to create new skin patterns, researching alleles and learning about genetic probabilities.
Indeed, much of snake breeding is left to chance. Often the creature that gnaws through the leathery egg will be predictable, familiar. But sometimes you get lucky. Burns did when he crossbred a Spider Special ball python with a Mojave, hatching three peach-colored beauties with a webbed design called Crystal Spiders. “He was the second or third person to ever produce this mutation of snakes,” Barczyk says. “It was pretty mammoth at the time.” And it is then that all those hours, days, months, years of preparation and work become worth it, because it allowed something so unique to enter the world.
Later that afternoon, once the charcoals die out, the kids burst through the front door in a torrent of energy, wrestling their dad to the ground. Burns wraps Jagger in a leg-lock and tickles his belly. Peyton sneaks from behind and hugs him around the neck. “Giddyap horsie!” she says, making him tap out. Then the Burnses head into the driveway to show off their new vacation home.
For two years Burns researched chassis and floor plans before buying this 441⁄2-foot RV. Unlike the old van, it has an actual shower, a comfier bed and a television built into the exterior. He already looks forward to watching it while doing lunges in a parking lot of a Walmart somewhere. The Burnses have already planned to spend most of this summer back on the road, following the same blank itinerary. “It’ll be fun living in this thing, driving up and down the highways, see something and you stop,” Susan says, sitting on one of the RV’s two couches.
For now, Burns’s life contains enough excitement. Last week, the Sharks took a 2–0 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals, outscoring Nashville 7–3 in third periods and making their first Stanley Cup seem more attainable each day. Off-season signees forward Joel Ward (21 goals and 22 assists during the regular season) and defenseman Paul Martin, Burns’s pass-happy partner, have fit in seamlessly. Joe Thornton finished tied for fourth in the NHL in points (82) and second in assists (63). Burns is also quick to credit DeBoer, an assistant on Team Canada’s gold medal worlds team last summer, and a renovated practice facility for fostering “really, really great energy.” Says Burns, “Definitely the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.”
Those around him can tell. How’s the ZFL today? Burns’s agent will text, referring to what he calls his client’s Zest for Life. Off the charts, Burns will reply. “I love being around him,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson says. “He’s vibrant. The curiosity, that’s how you should live life.” Before long another entrance ramp will beckon, another adventure will call his name. So treasure this elite defenseman, this goofy donkey while he’s still around, because there may never be another quite like him.