SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Two hours before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, Brent Burns' hooting and hollering echoed the bowels of Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center. The heavily tattooed, woolly bearded child-man with no front teeth was competing in a mean match of soccer hackysack.
Burns, wearing a black tank top and camouflage compression pants, finally broke off and began his mental preparation. Burns contorted his 6-foot-5 frame into a handstand. He leaned his feet on the wall to keep balance and held that position, his beard and bushy head of hair tied into a top knot a foot from brushing the floor.
"Just a quirky dude," teammate Joel Ward says. "The beard, the tattoos, the hair, the teeth, his pants, he seems a little bit odd to some, but he's just a fun human being."
Because of his exciting style on the ice and fun appearance off the ice, Burns has become one of the NHL's most popular and recognizable players.
He dresses to the nines and always carries around a military backpack full of games, thick books, and of course, essential oils and combs for his ZZ Top-like beard.
"It's me being me," Burns said. "Now I can't shave because I'm afraid for my safety. People may jump me."
And his hope is the Sharks can rally from a 2-0 series deficit against the Penguins and win his first Stanley Cup.
"I envision it all the time," Burns said. "That's your motivation in the summer. That's your motivation as a kid."
Burns has developed into a superstar since being traded by the Wild at the 2011 NHL draft it hosted. Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher swung for the fences by trading Burns and a second-round pick to San Jose for 30-goal scorer Devin Setoguchi, Boston University prospect Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick in that same draft.
At the time, Fletcher explained the rationale by saying: "For two years we've been stuck in the same place. … In order to compete with the top teams in this league, we have to have more talent."
Including 10th overall pick Jonas Brodin into the context, Fletcher said, "I think today … we added the equivalent of four first-round picks," adding, "There is no way this deal gets done if Charlie Coyle's not in it."
Of the pieces in the Burns trade, only Coyle is still with the Wild. He is coming off a career-high 21 goals this season. Setoguchi turned out to be a disappointment. He was dealt to Winnipeg for a second-round pick that would later also be traded and only topped out at 19 goals and 36 points in two seasons with Minnesota.
The first-round pick, which was 28th overall, became junior star Zack Phillips, who was a bust because of poor skating and work ethic. Phillips, a year after being traded for a minor-leaguer, signed with a second-tier pro franchise in Sweden on Wednesday.
Finding a spot
Fletcher declined to comment for this article, but the Wild made the calculated decision to use Burns as an asset to get multiple pieces because he was a year from unrestricted free agency. The Wild worried if Burns could be re-signed, in part because his agent, Ron Salcer, has a history of taking clients to free agency. The Wild, previously, had lost one of Salcer's other clients, Marian Gaborik, for nothing.
Plus, the Wild was preparing to pursue Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in free agency the following summer.
Still, it can't be fun for the Wild front office to see the player Burns has become. It certainly hasn't been for Wild fans.
At 31 and entering the final year of a contract that pays him $5.76 million, Burns is a Norris Trophy finalist after leading all NHL defensemen with 27 goals and scoring a career-high 75 points. In the playoffs, his 22 points is the fifth most by a defenseman in the past 30 years.
Like the Wild early in his career, the Sharks could never seem to settle on whether Burns was a winger or a defenseman under former coach Todd McLellan. After being on Team Canada's staff at last year's world championships, one in which Burns was dynamite, new coach Pete DeBoer cemented Burns on defense at his opening news conference.
Burns took off from there.
Besides being a star offensively, Burns had his best season defensively. That's in large part because the Sharks signed veteran Paul Martin specifically with the intent of making him Burns' full-time partner after seeing him playing alongside offensive dynamo Kris Letang in Pittsburgh.
Former defenseman and current Sharks radio analyst Bret Hedican said if Burns is Seabiscuit, Martin "is like that side horse brought in to keep him calm in the stable."
"He's helped Burns understand you can do a lot more by doing less," Hedican said. "Burns got quiet in his defensive game. He doesn't run around as much. If he turns the puck over, in the past, he'd try to chase the mistake. Well, that train's already left the station."
What's neat is as much as Martin has taken Burns under his wing on the ice, Burns has taken Martin under his wing off the ice. Martin, 35, is single and lives in Burns' neighborhood, so Burns often has the former Gophers standout from Elk River over to his family's home for dinner or just to hang out.
"He's a big character. Me, not so much," Martin said. "We're a little bit the opposite in how we handle our stuff, our business. He enjoys coming to the rink and makes it fun. Brent's become one of the best two-way defenseman in the league."
Burns especially excels at getting shots off quickly, something that former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire used to cram in Burns' head. Burns led NHL defensemen with 353 overall shots, 125 slapshots and 79 snap shots. He was second with 137 wrist shots.
"He does things I've never seen defensemen do in this league, ever," said Hedican, who played in the NHL 18 years. "I haven't seen an offensive defenseman with his creativity, his shot, his ability to wrist a puck as hard as he can wrist a puck off the wall.
"He's just so good at pulling the puck into his body and looking around that angle and traffic and getting it to the front of the net."
Burns left Minnesota an unrefined, raw player. He is now one awesome hockey player.