The first sign that something was awry came when Brent Burns turned the corner of his San Jose community and spotted something strange hanging from his fence.
As he drove closer to his house, he got a better look. It was a 40-foot banner that read, “Sick! First NHL Hat Trick!”
“The paint was still wet,” Burns said, laughing.
He turned into his driveway and found that just like the Shark Tank a few hours earlier, it was full of hats.
“It was pretty cool,” Burns said of the welcome-home reception he received from neighborhood kids after potting three goals and an assist nine days ago in a 6-3 win over St. Louis. Burns was flooded with so many texts and tweets that night, he didn’t get a wink of sleep because he was so “wired.”
It was a special afternoon for Burns, the former Wild forward-turned-defenseman who since has been turned back into a forward with the Sharks, who visit Minnesota on Sunday.
The Sharks play so many late games that Burns’ children — 3 ½ — year-old Peyton and 2 ½ — year-old Jagger — rarely get to go. But on this day, their mom, Susan, brought the kiddos to the game.
Jagger wore his Sharks jersey with the nameplate “Daddy” and No. 88 on the back.
“He’s a total nightmare,” Burns said, laughing. “He won’t take it off. I’ve given him a Team Canada jersey, Wild jersey, and All-Star jersey. He’s obsessed with the Sharks jersey.”
The fact that Burns, 28, has two kids running around is evidence that the happy-go-lucky former Wild fan favorite has grown up. Drafted 20th overall by the Wild in 2003, Burns is alarmingly one of the older guys now. If you know Burns, that’s cool and scary at the same time.
“I’ve grown up a lot,” Burns said. “It’s been 10 years. Over 10 years in anyone’s lifespan, they’re going to change a lot. I think you’re forced to [when you have children]. Now it’s not about you anymore; it’s about them.”
Don’t get “Burnzie” wrong. He is still a full-fledged man-child, and proud of it — a kid at heart trapped in a 6-5, 230-pound, tatted-up, often-very-bearded frame. He’s still a self-described goofball. He still owns all the snakes. He loves to surf and golf and bike and laugh, all part of the charm that attracts so many to him.
“I still love what I do and I have a passion for life,” Burns said. “You still change a little bit. As much as I would love to play video games all day, it’s just different. But I’ve never been a guy who wants to mope around and be serious. I wish I was more like that, but I just can’t be. It’s just not me. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be who you are.
“I’ve always respected the way a guy like Mikko [Koivu] or, on our team, Joe Pavelski are the ultimate professionals. They’re always doing the right thing. They never screw a drill up. I do. I try not to, but I screw drills up. That’s just who I am, I think. You’ve just got to accept it.”
This is Burns’ third season with San Jose after the June 2011 trade that sent him and a second-round pick to the Sharks for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick that became Zack Phillips. In parts of two seasons, Burns was inconsistent as a defenseman.
At the same time last season, the Sharks were trying to transition from being too slow up front to quicker with more of an attack mentality. During the final six games of Burns’ rookie year with Minnesota, Jacques Lemaire moved him to the back end.
During the 2004-05 lockout, then-Houston Aeros coach Todd McLellan helped transition Burns into a full-time defenseman. McLellan is in his sixth year coaching San Jose and coincidentally decided in concert with General Manager Doug Wilson that Burns could move back to forward.
After all, Burns is an imposing figure who is hard for defensemen to contain. He’s got a great shot and intimidating skill.
“He’s been dynamic,” Wilson said. “He’s the type of player you knew was going to have a big impact on our team, but we had a need last year in the forward position because we wanted to reset how we played. “Burnzie, with his history, really fit perfect with Jumbo [Joe Thornton] and how we wanted to play.”
Playing on a line with Thornton and rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, Burns has eight goals and 15 points in 16 games this season. He missed 13 games with the after-effects of being high-sticked by Ottawa Senators goalie Robin Lehner on Oct. 12.
Burns still believes “I can be a top D-man in this league, but I love playing both. I’m having fun with it. I just love to play.”
Wilson won’t commit that Burns’ transition to stud power forward is a permanent move. Remember, Dustin Byfuglien went from defenseman to Cup-winning impact forward with Chicago back to defenseman with Atlanta and Winnipeg.
“But he’s willing to do anything to help the team, which tells you a lot about Burnzie,” Wilson said. “Who knows where he’ll be in future years, but right now he fits perfectly with what we needed up front.
“Burnzie’s just a very real, unique person. He’s very curious about life, very smart and a joy to be around. He looks at the world a little differently than others, and we kind of like that.”