By the time the Tampa Bay Lightning were ready to open the 1995-96 campaign, their fourth in the NHL, the roster featured several important elements that, when combined, comprised the foundation for a much-improved team. There was scoring in the persons of Brian Bradley, Alexander Selivanov, Brian Bellows and Petr Klima; defense provided by a maturing Roman Hamrlik and the steady Bill Holder, and reliable goaltending, courtesy of Darren Puppa. To this formidable mix, General Manager Phil Esposito delivered the final, intangible ingredient: a great locker room guy.
When he arrived in Tampa, Shawn Burr was already an 11-year NHL veteran with 79 games of playoff experience. He was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the 1984 entry draft and was nurtured through their development program. The perennial Detroit powerhouse was the only professional organization that Burr knew.
But under then Red Wings Head Coach Scotty Bowman, the left winger had seen his ice time decrease, a situation to which he was unaccustomed. So when the trade to the Lightning happened, Burr viewed his move to the Bolts as a new chance to make an impact.
“I thought it might be time for a change,” Burr recalled. “I was a third or fourth line center in Detroit by that time, so I was glad that I was going to a team where I’d get an opportunity to play and have an expanded role – maybe I could help build a team into a winner.”
Burr got what he hoped for and more, appearing in all but one of the Lightning’s 82 games his first season with the team. Skating with center John Cullen and Selivanov on the right wing, Burr and his linemates produced 60 goals and 130 points.
“You know,” Burr reflected, “I think playing with Cullen and Selivanov was some of the most fun I ever had in hockey.”
Selivanov, particularly, was an interesting guy. Almost continually while he was on the ice, he kept shouting a word that sounded to Burr like “Blei!”
“I had played with Sergei Fedorov in Detroit for five years and had never heard that word,” Burr remembered. “But every time I’d pass him on the ice I’d hear him say ‘Blei!’ I didn’t know what he was telling me.”
It was later in the season that Burr learned that what sounded to him like “Blei” is a Russian curse word.
Burr was pleased with the easy going coach he found behind the bench, too.
“Terry Crisp was always joking around and he had all these old sayings he kept repeating,” Burr remembered. “He was a character and I enjoyed having him as a coach. We got along fine.”
Burr, because of his reputation, was expected to contribute more to the team than just ice time. At various times during his years in Detroit, he had been described as “irrepressible”, “charismatic” and “humorous”, the epitome of the locker room guy every good team needs.
“I always used to laugh because even in my hockey report, it doesn’t say anything about my hockey, just that ‘Shawn was good in the locker room,’” Burr said. “I began to think that maybe they kept leaving the first line of the report out – ‘Shawn wasn’t much of a hockey player…but was good in the locker room.’”
No small feat, that, to be the guy that keeps the team loose and laughing is a big responsibility, but Burr, a rapid talker, was born for the job.
There was the time, during the Cold War, when he visited West Berlin and posed for a picture with a border guard. Just before the shutter snapped he stuck two fingers behind the burly guard’s head.
Or his famous assessment of the physique of former NHL star Eric Lindros:
“Man, is that guy ripped,” Burr said. “I’ve got the washboard stomach, too. It’s just that mine has about two months of laundry on top of it.”
The first year that Burr was with the Lightning, the Bolts got their initial glimpse of the promised land when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time in team history, on the next to last day of the season.
The Bolts lost the first round series to the Philadelphia Flyers, but Burr still thinks the result could have been different. Unfortunately, leading up to the playoffs, Lightning net-minder Darren Puppa had been injured.
“A lot of people were calling out Puppa at the time – saying he was faking an injury,” Burr remembered. “I used to have to drive him to the rink during the playoffs because he had a herniated disc in his back and couldn’t drive his own car. He played in goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a herniated disc – and we almost beat Philadelphia. I think if he was healthy, we probably would have beaten them. Puppa was probably the best goalie I ever played with.”
In 1996-97, Burr contributed another productive scoring season, racking up 14 goals and 21 assists, despite missing several games after suffering one of the most gruesome injuries to a Lightning player in team history. On December 16, 1997 during a game in Boston against the Bruins, Burr was slashed on his hand.
“I pulled my hand out of my glove and almost puked,” Burr said at the time “It was the grossest thing I had ever seen.”
What he saw was lots of blood – what he didn’t see was the tip of his ring finger, which had been severed.
Burr, the team trainer and the tip of the finger were all rushed to a local hospital, where a strange night got even stranger.
“While I was waiting in the emergency room to have the tip sewed back on, some guy began to attack one of the nurses,” Burr said. “Well, the trainer just sat there so I jumped in and pulled the guy off her.”
When they started to sew the tip back on, the pain was intense.
“Maybe they figured I was some big tough hockey player but the pain was incredible,” Burr recalled. “I told the nurse, ‘this is beyond anything I’ve ever felt.’ She seemed surprised, ‘Isn’t it frozen?’ she asked. That’s when they realized that they had frozen the wrong two fingers.”
The reattachment didn’t take, and the fingertip eventually turned black and fell off. That was probably because Burr went back to playing within a week, rather than waiting the two months that the doctor had recommended.
Hampered by injuries to several key players, the Lightning finished in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, just three points shy of a repeat trip to the playoffs.
During the summer, with a mandate from ownership to cut payroll, Burr, Holder and several other veteran members of the club were sent packing.
When General Manager Esposito called Burr with the news, he was very clear about exactly what was behind the trade.
“Esposito told me that it wasn’t because they wanted to trade me – I had done everything they asked of me,” Burr said. “It was just economics.”
The Lightning sent Burr to the San Jose Sharks, where he remained for two seasons until Tampa Bay brought him back to the team in August of 1999.
But when he returned, Burr quickly learned that the organization he once knew had changed.
For one thing, the affable Crisp was gone and in his place was Steve Ludzig, a rookie coach with a disciplinarian attitude. Plus, the tenet of the team was focused on the youth, with Vincent Lecavalier entering his second season. Ice time for the veterans was at a premium.
Burr appeared in only four games for the Lightning, picking up two assists along the way, before the coach told him that he was going to sit out the next 10 games so the team could see some younger players. Not too many days later, Burr got a call from the assistant general manager.
“He said, ‘Shawn, I’ve got some news for you,’” Burr recalled. “And I said, ‘what time do you want me to go to Winnipeg?’ That startled him.
‘How did you know?’ he said.”
It was an incredibly lucky guess, but Burr had nailed it. The team was loaning him to the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League, based in Winnipeg.
“So that’s where my career came to an end,” Burr sighed. “As a member of the Manitoba Moose.”
Burr scored a goal in his last game as a professional, putting the puck behind the goaltender for the Long Beach Ice Dogs, Nikolai Khabibulin, still three years away from eventually leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup. The next morning the team climbed in a bus heading for the airport, but Burr wasn’t on board.
“It was practically Easter time,” Burr said. “I took a flight to Louisiana where my wife and kids were visiting her parents, and just like that, professional hockey was over for me.”
Today, Burr, now 43, lives in Michigan, where he is the Senior Vice President and Financial Planning Specialist with the investment firm Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and he still laces up the skates for charity as a member of the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Team.
“I was a good passer, a good skater and good hitter, but I wasn’t great at anything,” Burr explained. “I understood the game and I knew where to be and where to go on the ice and I’d like to think I just enjoyed playing the game. That’s why it was easy for me to call it a day, because it wasn’t fun anymore, and when it’s not fun, I wasn’t very effective.
“One of the biggest things you miss when you stop playing hockey is just the dressing room camaraderie. When you walk into the locker room at an alumni game, it’s like the old days. We just have more to pick on each other for because generally the guys aren’t in such great shape anymore.”
And that’s where Burr feels most at home: being a great locker room guy.