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Behind the Beard: Sharks D-Man Brent Burns Is Full of Quirky Contradictions

Published by Bleacher Report on Wed, 25 May 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif.Brent Burns isn't having such a fun time answering reporters' stock questions on a recent off day in the Western Conference Final."OK, let's go, I only got a few minutes before I gotta do something else," Burns tells the first reporter to approach his locker at the San Jose Sharks' practice facility.In just a few seconds, a huge crowd has formed around him, and Burnsclearly looks and sounds uncomfortable with the situation as the media begin peppering him with questions.How had the Sharks won two of the first three games against the St. Louis Blues'"Just workin' hard for each other, see the sacrifice the guys are makin', I just think. I don't know," Burns says, his head down.How would he explain his 18 points in his first 14 games, second-best in the league entering Game 4'"Everybody's been playing really well," he said.More clipped answers follow. Yeah, it's fun to play with defensive partner Paul Martin. Yeah, it's "important" to get out to a good start in any game. No, nothing is a "surprise" to him in the games of late."I've been in the league 12 years," Burns impatiently says before another reporter can get too far into a question about what's he's been "learning" so far in the playoffs.Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.Most of the crowd soon leaves, sadly clutching their notepads and microphones. If they came expecting quotes to match the wild-man avatar, from the man with the Moses-length beard and the samurai ponytail and the tooth-deprived upper gums and the tattooed body canvas on par with Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man, well, not today.But with his audience down to just a handful, the small-club-versus-stadium-band Burns appears. The wall comes down some, and when the topic of conversation becomes which books he's read lately, the gap-toothed smile emerges and the energy picks up."I'm reading Game of Thrones, the fifth one, A Dance with Dragons, right now. There's a lot of s--t going on in those books," Burns says.Burns, whose great grandfather and grandfather served for Canada in the first two World Wars and who is keenly interested in military history, is asked the one book he'd recommend about the history of warfare."The Devil's Guard is my favorite. It's a little bit World War II, a little bit Vietnam," Burns says. "Boy, you'll like that one."Outside of Napa Valley, where's the best place to go in the San Jose area for a good glass of wine'"Testarossa is a great spot, and it's only 20 minutes away, in the Los Gatos mountains. I highly recommend that spot," Burns says.Burns eventually makes good copy. How can he not' He wears ridiculous, Don Cherry-style suits and walks around with an army-style camouflage backpack full of workout gear, nutrition powders and a blender to mix them up in. He once had a renowned snake collection, more than 300, and in April he revealed to Star Tribune hockey reporter Michael Russo that he was bitten by a cheetah a few years ago while trying to put his arm around it at a zoo in Columbus, Ohio.How many pro athletes have been bitten by a cheetah'He studies the martial arts, is into Eastern philosophy, loves to climb those same Los Gatos mountains, loves to surf, loves to mountain bike, loves to golf and just loves...life."Definitely a character," Martin says. "But that deceives a lot of people, I think. He just loves coming to the rink. He loves the game, totally dedicated to his job. He has that passion, that energy. It's made me feel young. It's been fun. I've had a blast being around him."When Martin signed a four-year, $19.4 million free-agent contract with the Sharks last summer, he wasn't sure who he'd be paired with by first-year coach Pete DeBoer. When he learned it would be Burns, Martin admitted to being a tad worried about how he'd adjust to playing with a defenseman who often plays like a forward. Burns, after all, was a forward with the Sharks for a little more than one season before going back to defense full-time last season.Martin's worries are long gone. The 35-year-old veteran of 12 seasons acknowledges the need to "err on the side of caution" in trying to read off Burns positionally, but he otherwise credits Burns for one of the better years of his career."He always had a rap of not being able to play well defensively, but I don't believe that. He showed me what he can do playing in his own end, and not just at the other end, which he does as well as anybody in the league as a defenseman," Martin said.Burns' energy picks up, too, when discussing what playing with Martin meant for his game this season, one in which he was an NHL All-Star for the second straight year and became just one of three defensemen in league history, joining Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, to put more than 350 shots on net."Unbelievable partner, and just fun to be around, which is huge," Burns said.One of the things Burns does to unwind after a game is get on FaceTime with Martin and go over their shifts together, talking about ways to improve."That's what I'm talking about when I say he's got that dedication to the game," Martin said.Inside the Sharks' renovated dressing room at the practice facility, a pingpong table sits in the middle. Sharks forward Joel Ward says Burns is a player to avoid for a game with money on the line."He's just a competitive son of a gun," Ward said. "Whatever it is, he really wants to come out on top. Every practice even, every one-on-one battle in the corner, he wants to win it. And if you do beat him, he doesn't like to hear about it."The first thing Burns does before the start of practice is fire 15 or 20 pucks at Joe Pavelski.It's up to his smaller Sharks teammate to get a deflected stick on any of the Burns bombs from the blue linesomething he did with uncanny proficiency before a recent practice.Pavelski is known as one of the best "tip" men in the league, and having to face down a Burns slapper and get a stick on it is probably a good lesson in survival. On the Sharks' critical go-ahead goal early in the third period of Game 5, Pavelski tipped a waist-high shot by Burns past Blues goalie Jake Allen in an eventual 6-3 Sharks win.This season, Burns averaged 25 minutes and 52 seconds per game, fourth-most in the league. His 27 goals were the most in the league by a defenseman, his 75 points second to Erik Karlsson.His defensive game probably will never get the acclaim of his play at the other end, but he's worked hard at it. In the four years before he came to the Sharks as part of a blockbuster trade with Minnesota in 2011, he had an average Corsi For Percentage of 49.1. This season, it was 53.1. Among NHL defensemen that played more than 1,500 minutes, that ranked second only to the Kings' Drew Doughty (58.9).DeBoer knows he can use Burns on one of his forward lines if serious injuries strike. But don't expect him to ever take him away from the back end."He's a defenseman, and if he's not the best defenseman in the league, he's at least in the conversation, and that's where he's going to stay," DeBoer said.Burns' contract, with a cap hit of $5.76 million, is up after next season, and he could then become an unrestricted free agent. With the numbers he's posted the last two years and the play he's exhibited so far in the playoffs, it would be in the best interest of Sharks general manager Doug Wilson to start negotiations on a contract extension. Otherwise Burns might break the bank on the open market.But when the subject of San Jose comes up, Burns says, "I love it here," and why not' The Sharks, with a stable of excellent players signed beyond this year, figure to be a strong team in the coming years.San Jose clearly loves Burns right back. Kids have been known to come to Sharks games with beards, and the team held a "Brent Burns Chia Pet" promotion this season. At this year's NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, Burns stole the show by participating in skills activities in a Chewbacca mask, and also for having his son Jagger skate in one of his No. 88 jerseys.While it would seem Burns is screaming for attention because of all his eccentricities, the truth is he doesn't like to have the media spotlight on him. In that sense, while he doesn't look like your typical NHL player, he has all the hallmarks of humility common in the sport."It's just the way I deal with stress," he says when asked about some of the quirks.The only thing he cares about right now, professionally, is a Stanley Cup. He's never won one, and neither have the Sharks. They are one win away."People always talk about getting over the hurdle, but that hurdle's pretty big," Burns said. "It's just special being in the battle."There was a a bit of a gleam in Burns' eyes with that sentence.The fight, the battle, the journey to a Stanley Cup: For Burns, that's the fun part.Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.
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