By Larry Wigge
It was midway through the 2003 season -- Brent Burns rookie season with the Minnesota Wild that coach Jacques Lemaire switched the Ajax, Ontario, native, from right way to defense.
Now, midway through the 2013 season, San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan has decided to switch Burns back to right wing. To make things more interesting, it was McLellan, who coached Burns on the right side, at Houston (American Hockey League).
"When he was sent to us in Houston, there was some debate -- Is Brent a d-man or is he a forward?" McLellan said. "We had him for the full season. We used him in different roles. There were times when I felt frustration for him because he was, 'What am I?'"
Playing forward is a much faster game. It's hard on your lungs and your legs. But ...
Ask linemates Joe Thornton and Logan Couture whether they would prefer to have Burns on defense or at forward. Thornton and Couture have watched the 6-5, 225-pound monster moved back to forward and aid the Sharks with two goals and three assists in three games, including two goals by Couture in a 4-3 triumph over the Los Angeles Kings March 14.
"He's a pretty good defenseman, but I think he's going to be an even better forward," Thornton said. "I love him. He's big, he's strong. He skates real well. He seems like a perfect fit for me and Logan."
Couture said: "He's an animal. I said it about 10 times after each shift. I was telling him, I was hoping to play next to him with Jumbo (Thornton) for the next 10 years."
Actually, Burns may have been a surprise to some with the 20th pick in the 2003 NHL draft, but he clearly was born to be a hockey player, literally and physically. Gaby, his mom, went into labor with him while she was at a rink watching her husband, Rob, play in a recreational league game back in March of 1985.
Rob Burns was a metal factory worker by trade. But after the couple had three kids (Brent has a younger brother named Brad and a sister named Kori) a need to supplement the family income ensued. It's one of those delicious little tidbits we learned about in a couple of conversations with Burns this season. The extra job turned out to be a paper route that Brent and his dad had delivering copies of the Toronto Star ... and they did it early each morning on roller blades.
Clearly, Burns' background shows he's full of surprises.
Brent was was a lot of late development in his last year in juniors. The Wild knew that he'd played a little bit of defense, but we had no intentions of drafting him to play defense. The team saw the size and speed and shot and figured he could be a power forward once he developed. But Burns just wanted to play. He didn't care where.
More surprises. We learned about the diverse life of Brent Burns that night. Like ...
Burns has five tattoos in all. He owns three guitars, two expensive racing bikes to quench his love for cycling and interest in the life of Lance Armstrong. Plus, he's got his own little Noah's Ark -- two huskies, two cats, two large fast-talking birds and a large and unique sampling of fish that includes a shark.
We also learned that reading is Brent's greatest passion outside of hockey.
"I've loved to read since I was a kid," Brent said, looking for a look of astonishment from me when he gave me that answer. "Seriously, I remember when I was growing up, we had a loft in the garage that had a fort up there. But I always seemed to be attracted to several huge boxes my dad had up there filled with books -- most of them war books. I'd sit there all day and read them."
Burns actually got interested in war stories by listening to Patrick Burns, his grandfather, who was an artilleryman in World War II. Like with everything else in Brent's life, the list of books in his library cover an assortment of subjects. The military tomes start back in the Roman Empire and include topics on the Civil War, World War I and II. He even has a book about the Viet Cong. Plus, he told me he has the complete Harry Potter series, nearly every word that has been written by or about Lance Armstrong and most of John Grisham's mystery thrillers.
Clearly, variety is the spice of life for this interesting forward-turned-defenseman-back-to-forward. The best part of the plot of Brent Burns the hockey player came in his draft year when he grew a remarkable five inches and gained 15 pounds. It was at that point that he moved up front, started piling up points and rocketed up the scouting charts.
Burns had only one goal as a rookie in the NHL in 2003-04 and managed just four goals in 2005-06. Thus, the move from right wing to defense.
But making a change back to defense wasn't always without tests for Lemaire. I'll never forget the coach throwing his arms in the air in confusion over a bad turnover Brent made in a game in St. Louis a little more than a year ago. Reporters wondered when the experiment might end. To which Lemaire replied, "Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day."
After getting a few laughs at Burns' expense, I remember asking Jacques about the trial and error of such an experiment. He smiled and said, "All they asked racehorses to do is run, right? Well, not quite. Brent Burns is at a part of the development stage for a young defenseman. What I like most about Burnzie is that he just has fun playing hockey. And I really love his attitude to learn on the job."
Makes you want to know a little more about Brent Burns, right? Well, here's a sampling:
Favorite player growing up? "Mark Messier," Burns said quickly. "Great leader. Big. Strong. Great skater. What a blast it was for me in my first preseason game with the Wild. First shift. I'm lining up across from Messier. I was so nervous I couldn't move, you know?"
Any superstitions? "When I get to the rink before each game, I try to focus on the players I'm going against. Their strengths and weaknesses. And ... I usually listen to the same CD's. Something to get my blood flowing like Good Charlotte or Guns & Roses."
If you weren't a hockey player, what would you be? "If hockey didn't work out, I'd probably be a lifer in the military. Infantry ... like my grandfather."
Lots of beliefs. So many interests. What is the one thing people would be most surprised about you? "Maybe that I believe in reincarnation ..."
Whoa! Even I had to pause for that one, before he continued, saying, "I don't know what I was in a past life. But I'd like to believe I was a lion or a tiger. Some sort of big predator, you know what I mean?"
Well ... no.
Just another day in the life to Brent Burns.