Brent Burns, Wild thing

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2007 - 9:39 PM

Defenseman Brent Burns loves the wild side of life, certainly off the ice while living amid his animal kingdom, but also on the ice, where the fast-improving youngster flies around with abandon.

It is feeding time in Woodbury, and the only thing missing is the theme from "Jaws." Da na, da na, da na, da na ...

Bryce, a 2½-foot brown, black-dotted horn shark, is hungry. As Brent Burns pours hundreds of defrosted silverside minnows into his 280-gallon saltwater aquarium, he boasts about how cool his dozen or so tropical fish are.

"The only thing you've got to watch out for is him," Burns says, pointing to a neat-looking lionfish. "You get stung by him, your hand will go numb for a week."Ah, try six months, hon," Burns' girlfriend, Susan, interjects.

A love of marine life is just part of the beauty of Brent Burns. The 6-4, 22-year-old Wild defenseman dramatically came of age during the final three months of last season with a dominant brand of hockey that was highlighted by back-to-back overtime winners in March and two fights during the playoffs, enhancing his already soaring popularity in the Twin Cities.

Shadow Burns -- a self-described "goofball" with shaggy, highlighted hair, one missing tooth, four tattoos, a different-colored toque for every outfit and a permanent smile -- away from the rink and you'll discover there's a lot that makes this happy-go-lucky man-child tick.

First, while most Wild youngsters live in downtown Minneapolis so they can have a little fun on the side, Burns lives in a 3,800-square-foot home in suburbia that is part Animal House, part Animal Kingdom.

Sure, there are the extras you'd expect from a young professional athlete -- three guitars, lots and lots of DVDs, a pingpong/pool table. But Burns is also one of the most well-spoken, well-read athletes you'd ever meet, with a broad spectrum of interests -- cycling, animals and country music, to name a few.

His library spans the magic of wizards and witches in "Harry Potter" to the atrocities of Nazi Germany. He can talk intelligently about everything from the Viet Cong to Greek mythology to the tiniest detail of Lance Armstrong's life.

"I've loved to read since I was a kid," Burns said. "I remember growing up, we had a loft in the garage that had a fort up there. My father [Robert] had three huge boxes with tons of books -- war books. I'd sit there all day and read them."

Enter through Burns' current garage and there's immediate evidence of his love of cycling -- two expensive racing bikes, including one custom-made to pay homage to one of his heroes, Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner. Last summer, Burns competed in a few triathlons and last weekend took a 60-mile bike excursion into Wisconsin with four friends.

"Still, I did a race this summer with 55-, 60-year-olds and got crushed," Burns said. "There was this one steep hill, and these guys looked like little mosquitoes in front of me."

Walk into Burns' house, and you're greeted by his two 1-year-old huskies, Zeus and Maia, barking from their very own room behind the kitchen. More than a dozen pictures of the dogs hang on the wall, and the animals have marked their territory by tearing up the cushions of their own couch.

They have the run of a spacious back yard, although Maia proved she can scale the fence two weeks ago. Susan and a panicked Burns eventually found Maia at the Humane Society, so they're now installing an invisible fence.

Zeus and Maia are so strong that Burns often straps on his rollerblades and lets the dogs tow him around his subdivision as if he were a musher in the Iditarod.

In the living room is a gigantic aviary with a stunning, 2-foot blue, yellow and green macaw named Eragon and a very jealous -- and unbelievably loud -- African Grey named Hedwig.

Listen to Burns converse with his pets, and you'd swear he's a mix between Dr. Dolittle and Ace Ventura.

Add the fish, and children of Wild players beg their parents to visit the Burnzie Zoo.

"Instead of going to the petting zoo, we go over to Burnzie's house," Wild teammate Brian Rolston said, laughing. "My kids are already asking when we're going over there again."

Said Burns, "Ryder and Brody [Rolston's 5- and 4-year-olds] will lay on the bed and watch the fish for hours."

A tribute in ink to Granddad

Maybe Burns was born to play hockey. His mother, Gaby, went into labor with him at a hockey rink in Ajax, Ontario. The oldest of three siblings (20-year-old sister Kori and 18-year-old brother Brad), Burns grew up in Lindsay before moving to Barrie, where he had three paper routes delivering the Toronto Sun.

One of the most influential people in Burns' life was his grandfather Patrick, who lived with the family for 23 years.

"It was a package deal," Burns' mom said, chuckling. "I got the husband and the father-in-law."

Patrick, who died in 1998, was an artilleryman in World War II and used to baby-sit Kori and Brad when Brent had to be taken to his many hockey practices and games. But a wide-eyed Burns couldn't wait to get home, where he'd plead for more stories from Grandpa.

"Granddad had his chair, a real soft, cushy chair, and he used to sit there and tell the boys war stories all the time," Gaby said. "In Grade 8, Brent wrote a war story his grandfather told him. The teacher was so moved by it, she phoned and invited Granddad to school to honor him at a Remembrance Day service. The teacher read Brent's story. It was Granddad's last Remembrance Day.

"For a kid his age to move a teacher like that, I was really impressed, and I know it meant a lot to Granddad."

To honor their grandfather, Brent and Brad got identical tattoos on their left arms. It features a cross with a Canadian military helmet on top and the zodiac sign for Pisces in the middle. In the background is a Bofor artillery gun over the hills of Sicily. Underneath reads, "Patrick Joseph Burns, 1911-1998."You don't think too many kids would have a relationship that strong with their grandfather that they'd want to honor him in a permanent way," Gaby said.

Tattoos have always meant a lot to Burns. His father took him for his first at age 11 -- a Canadian flag and a hockey stick on his right arm. This summer, Burns got a massive, colorful dragon on his left thigh and a huge tattoo on his back with a picture of his pets with the word "Wild" in green script.

"I'm getting a lot of heat from [teammates]: 'What if you're traded?'" Burns said. "But first it's a double meaning because it has to do with my love for wildlife and my pets. But the Wild is my first NHL team. That's huge. I've always wanted to play in the NHL, and they gave me the chance."

In fact, on his father's back is a tattoo of the "Born to Be Wild" comet. Inside the Wild logo reads, "Brent Burns, First Round, 20th Overall, 2003."We're a little proud, eh?" Gaby said.

At long last, fists of fury

For years, Burns' father told him it was time to fight. Burns' buddies back home always made fun of him for not dropping his gloves.

So imagine their shock when in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs in Anaheim, Burns skated to Keith Carney's defense and wound up dropping the gloves with forward Chris Kunitz.

Back in Woodbury, Burns' girlfriend watched on TV with Burns' mom, Burns' former Minnesota billet and Pierre-Marc Bouchard's girlfriend.

"We jumped on the coffee table screaming," Susan said. "My cell phone started ringing, everyone was calling -- all the girlfriends, my parents, saying, 'Oh my God, what is he doing?' My first reaction was, 'No, cut it out, Brent.' Brent's mom's first reaction was, 'Kill him!'"

Two games later in the Wild's only victory, Burns delighted a sold-out Xcel Energy Center by pummeling Corey Perry.

"I only dropped the gloves because a guy in the second row yelled, 'Fight him! Fight him!'" Burns said.

Asked if he watches the fights on YouTube, Burns said: "Oh, yeah, I check them out. My best buddy back home, we call him Johnny Drama, is always chirping me about not fighting. So I called him right away and said, 'Get on YouTube!' I should have done this my first year. It took me four years to drop my purse. I'm not scared of it anymore."

The brouhahas just added to the high regard fans have for him.

"He's so modest, but I see it in the stands," Susan said. "I'll be like, 'Did you see all the Burns jerseys in the stands and did you hear all the people yelling to get Burnzie on the ice?' He'll be like, 'Yeah, right.'"

Still, it's safe to say coach Jacques Lemaire would rather see Burns on the ice than in the penalty box. Slow to develop because the Wild bounced him between wing and the blue line, Burns is finally cemented on the blue line, and there are high expectations of him after coming into his own last season (seven goals, plus-16).

With size, speed, range, hockey sense and a sizzling wrist shot, Burns has the ability to be a top defenseman for years.

"My first couple years, it was, 'I hope I'm not minus-2 tonight,'" Burns said. "Now, it's, 'I'm going to smoke that guy, play a good game and make a difference.' Before it was like, 'Maybe I'll get to line up against [Mark] Messier today.' Now, it's, 'I'm going to take the puck off Messier and not give him anything.'

"I think it's just growing as a player and a person. Butchy [Bouchard] was a [productive] player right away at a young age. Me and Butchy, we're really good friends but totally different. I'm goofier. He's really organized. He would never forget anything. I miss appointments all the time. Now I'm getting more like that. It's business now."

And still, with a smile on his face. Nobody has more fun at the rink. In a lot of ways, Burns is the electricity in the locker room, reminding the veterans that it's a whole lot more fun playing hockey for a living than punching a time clock every day.

"There's something about that breed," Rolston said. "Joe Thornton had it, too. They're happy-go-lucky guys. You can call them ditsy almost. It's a good way to be in this sport because a lot of times you put too much pressure on yourself and it's a detriment.

"But Burnzie is a guy that loves coming to the rink, a guy always joking around in the locker room, a guy always having fun. And even cooler, he's making some big strides.

"I believe he has the tools to be a Norris Trophy candidate, I really do, with a little more maturity. If he can put it all together, and he will, I believe he's that good."

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