Brent Burns is a man of many obsessions -- like honing one of the NHL's most dangerous shots

ByCraig Custance ESPN logo
Thursday, June 2, 2016

Brent Burnsobsesses over things. He just does. It's part of what makes him Brent Burns.

You might have heard about the San Jose Sharks defenseman's collection of snakes and reptiles -- a menagerie that former teammate Wes Walz had to stop taking his kids to see when Burns casually mentioned an unaccounted-for boa constrictor.

That's just the tip of the iceberg.

When Burns, 31, gets into things, he goes all in.

Like his obsession with pirates, one he shares with his 4-year-old son, Jagger. Burns had a suit custom-designed so the skull-and-bones material perfectly matched his skull-and-bone cufflinks. One of the pendants on the silver chain he frequently wears around his neck is another nod to his love of all things piratical.

There's also his obsession with tattoos, one that started when the Barrie, Ontario, native was 11 years old and got a hockey stick with a Canadian flag inked on his right arm. He was so proud of that one that he stood up on the bench in the dressing room before a youth hockey practice and shouted to his coach, Jari Byrski, to let him show it off.

"He takes his shirt off and goes, 'I love it!'" said Byrski, who has served as Burns' skills coach since the defenseman was 7 or 8 years old and still works with him each offseason. "I thought, 'This kid is just unbelievable. He's going places."

There was his obsession with soccer, which led him to wearfutbol jerseys whenever he wasn't on the ice.

"He loved the fact that Liverpool had that, 'You never walk alone' thing," said former Wild teammate Andrew Brunette.

And his obsession with free stuff -- like a T-shirt from a corporate sponsor or a rally towel from any hockey game.

Burns arrived at the All-Star Game in Nashville this year a little earlier than his teammates in part to make sure he got all the free stuff possible.

"He plans around getting the free stuff," said John Scott, the All-Star Game MVP and a teammate of Burns' with the Wild and the Sharks. "He doesn't miss an opportunity."

There's the obsession with wine. And, at home, he has a room full of guitars.

Or how about this one: bottled water?

"He's obsessed with Voss water," said Sharks teammate Tommy Wingels. "Put that in there."

Video games. UFC's Conor McGregor. Camping. Jujitsu. Recovery products. Surfing. Guns. Knapsacks. The military. Mountain biking. Comic books. All were -- or are -- Burns' passions or preoccupations.

What else?

He once went through a whiskey phase. Not because he liked it, because he actually didn't. But it fascinated him. Who drinks this stuff? He had to find out, and it became a singular focus for him until he did.

"It's so harsh. Then you learn about it. You see a guy, and he's like, 'This is raisins and [stuff]. I'm like, 'What?' It burns the [s---] out of my mouth," Burns said. "I like that kind of stuff. I get interested."

Those obsessions also fuel a voracious reading habit. Former Wild teammates remember him sitting on the training table before games reading Harry Potter. He has since graduated to the Game of Thrones series and is working his way through book No. 5. And he's not just skimming through the books. Burns will read a chapter multiple times just to get a complete understanding of the characters.

When he needs a "break" from Game of Thrones, he turns to the other book he's reading, "The Nuclear Jihadist" -- a 432-page tome about global nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

To really get a sense of what makes Burns tick, suggested teammate Brenden Dillon, have him share what's in the backpack he always carries.

Burns laughed when asked about it. "Regular stuff," he responded, then begins to list it all: Some Garden of Life protein, a coffee mug, a blender, some tea bags. You know, just the usual backpack stuff.

I point this all out not just to highlight Burns' uniqueness but also to help explain something else: how someone who landed in the NHL as an 18-year-old with an erratic shot arrived -- 13 years later -- in the Stanley Cup finals with one of the best and most dangerous shots in the NHL. Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.

Burns, like every kid who makes it this far, was passionate about hockey growing up in Barrie. He used in-line skates for his paper route delivering the Toronto Sunto improve his skating. He clung to his dad, Robert, while wearing full hockey gear as they rode a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle to hockey practices.

But perfecting his shot? That became an obsession he never abandoned.

Burns credited Jacques Lemaire, his coach in Minnesota, with helping him hone his release and accuracy while stressing the importance of getting his shot off quickly.

"He used to try and do the big slap shots all the time," Scott said. "It took him a year to get his shot off."

Burns concurred. "My shot was terrible," he said.

But in Minnesota, veterans Walz and Brunette were willing to take the time to work with him. Brunette, as he'd do in games, would park in front of the net in practice and teach Burns where he needed to shoot for the perfect tip. The big but unreliable shot started to evolve into a dangerous wrister.

"He worked extremely hard at it," Brunette said. "We'd always talk about shooting for sticks. He does it so well."

Along with Lemaire, Burns credits former San Jose and current Edmonton Oilers assistant coach Jay Woodcroft for his instruction and for organizing Shot Club, a time before or after practice during which a group of Sharks players would shoot and shoot and shoot. Joe Pavelski would master deflections while Burns would practice very specific situational shooting over and over again.

Somewhere, Woodcroft was smiling when Burns got the puck at the point in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and fired a wrister that was perfectly elevated for Pavelski to tip it past the Blues'Jake Allen and give the Sharks a 4-3 lead in the third period.

Those three had only worked on that exact sequence in Shot Club a million times.

The past couple of summers, Byrski and Burns have worked on the knee-shot snipers such asSteven Stamkos use to score.

"You're moving forward, and the puck location is moving to the front foot," Byrski said of the shot. "To take advantage of your leverage, you move the leg forward, releasing the shot when the other leg goes down to the ice. One knee is touching the ice."

It's not a shot 6-foot-5 defensemen usually have in their arsenal, but Burns eventually mastered it. And there it was in action in Game 2 of the West finals when Burns took a cross-ice pass from Pavelski, his knee hitting the ice as the puck blasted past the Blues'Brian Elliott.

The shot obsession is paying off in the biggest moments for Burns.

"You have to love the work. We do. That's what makes this team special," Burns said. "It's just like an elite businessman. If you meet them, they don't sleep. They're doing stuff all night. I think it's crazy. But I think that's the way it is. We are obsessed with doing our craft."

We see the giant, woolly beard. The Chewbacca mask at the All-Star Game. The big gap between teeth in his smile. The crazy suits and the tattoos.

What we don't always see is the obsessive hard work Burns -- a Norris Trophy finalist -- has put in to reach this point and star on this stage. It shows only in the results, in the body of work that becomes more impressive every season.

"That's what I love about him," said Sharks goalie James Reimer. "He's got a God-given gift. What impresses me so much about the guys on this team is that their work ethic matches their gift. [Burns] exemplifies it."