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Burns thriving on Sharks with kindred spirits Pavelski, Karlsson

Defenseman credits family atmosphere in San Jose ahead of All-Star Weekend

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Brent Burns had no idea what was going on when the San Jose Sharks gathered in their locker room at their practice facility one day this month. The players' fathers were there, in town for their annual trip with the team, and a video started playing.

It showed footage shot from a drone flying high above Burns' 420-acre Texas ranch. More than 100 animals lined the road, and two new ones walked onto the property -- gemsboks, or large South African antelopes.

They were among the gifts from Burns' teammates to celebrate his 1,000th NHL game, in which he scored the winner in a 4-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks at SAP Center on Dec. 27.

Video: ANA@SJS: Burns pots go-ahead goal in 1,000th game

The significance isn't just that Burns owns exotic animals. It's that his teammates knew Burns had a male gemsbok and was looking for a female, and that they worked with his ranch manager to find two to help him build a herd. The females happen to be pregnant already, due in about a month. 

"That's going to be in our family for a long time," Burns said, smiling. "Those genetics will be passed down, and they'll be at our ranch for us to have our coffees and look at every morning. Our favorite thing to do is just drive around all day. We just go on little safaris all the time."

It isn't just that the Sharks accept Burns for who he is, either. It's that they love him for it, and by making him comfortable, building his confidence, improving his game and surrounding him with other talented players, they have brought out his best as a player and as a person. He benefits from their culture and contributes to it.

Burns won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in 2016-17.

And this season? At age 33?

"I think he's playing better now than when he won the Norris," general manager Doug Wilson said.

Burns has 52 points (nine goals, 43 assists), on pace for NHL career highs in assists (72) and points (86), leading the Sharks in scoring by nine and tied for the lead among NHL defensemen with Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames. But he isn't just an offensive defenseman. San Jose counts on him in all situations, and he has played a balanced game.

With center Joe Pavelski and defenseman Erik Karlsson, he will represent the Sharks on home ice in the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"Obviously he means a lot to a lot of us," Pavelski said. "He's a great teammate, first and foremost. Loves the game. Brings a great atmosphere around here. He's put his time in. He earned it. He works. There's no questions about where his heart is."


[RELATED: Complete NHL All-Star coverage - All-Star rosters announced]


* * * * *

Burns doesn't get nervous for games anymore. He eats the same food, drinks the same coffee, goes through the same routine.

He was nervous before playing the Ottawa Senators at SAP Center on Jan. 12, though. 

The Sharks were honoring him for his 1,000th NHL game, and his 7-year-old son, Jagger, was going to skate through the Shark head in full uniform, wearing his No. 88.

"I didn't sleep very well the night before, just thinking about him," Burns said. "It was going to create a memory for him. I could tell he was really nervous."

Tweet from @SanJoseSharks: What was it like for Jagger Burns to skate through the Shark Head tonight? Well, something like this.

Father and son had 360-degree cameras attached to their sticks to record the moment.

"You're going first?" Jagger asked his father.

"You're going first," Brent told his son. "You're leading us out, big guy."

Jagger marched out of the locker room, Brent right behind. As he came down the tunnel and skated out through the Shark head, he could hear the music and the public-address announcer.

"Ladies and gentlemen … here … are your … San Jooo-seee Sharks!"

Jagger skated laps under the teal lights. Brent gave him a fist bump and a head tap.

"Awesome!" Brent told his son, taking a knee and putting his arm around him, grinning as if he were the kid. "I love it. That was cool, huh?"

Afterward, Burns told the media it was one of the best moments of their lives.

Video: OTT@SJS: Burns takes the ice with his son

But that's not all. The NHL gave Burns an engraved Tiffany crystal. The San Jose training and equipment staffs gave him a custom three-liter bottle of wine. In what has become a Sharks tradition for milestones, his teammates presented him a fossilized megalodon tooth estimated to be 2.6 million years old.

The Sharks brought out his family members for the ceremony and hosted them in a suite. He had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 victory.

Burns raved about everyone and everything from owner Hasso Plattner and Wilson to the Sharks logo.

"It's a logo that every kid loves," Burns said. "It doesn't matter where you're from. If you look back at most NHL players, when they're kids, they have a Sharks jersey at some point."

The emotion was striking, and genuine.

Burns is a freakish athlete, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound man who can skate and handle the puck like someone much smaller. The Minnesota Wild selected him in the first round (No. 20) in the 2003 NHL Draft as a forward.

He broke into the NHL with the Wild at age 19 in 2003-04 and spent seven seasons with them. But it wasn't until after the Sharks acquired him in a trade on June 24, 2011, that he reached his full potential.

Wilson, a Norris winner, saw something in him. The coaches have brought it out of him -- first Todd McLellan and his staff, then Peter DeBoer and his staff.

Plattner, Wilson and the coaches support the culture created by Joe Thornton. Work hard. Have fun. Be yourself. Bring your family.

It has been perfect for a guy who grows out his beard, puts his hair in a bun, wears tattoos and camouflage, eats lean protein harvested from his ranch, studies training methods and goes out on the ice early with Pavelski to work before each practice.

"We have many different personalities in here, and they're accepted," Burns said in a quiet moment last week. "It doesn't matter how you go about things. It's about being good on the ice.

"It's funny. You play 1,000 games. I look back, and I just see how different of a player I was in Minnesota. I was drafted as a winger, and I wouldn't even say a goal-scoring winger. I was just a hard-working …"

He paused.

"Um … forward," he said.

He laughed.

"I don't even know what it was," he said. "And now I go into games feeling elite and wanting to make a difference every night, and that stems from an elite system that starts with Doug and Hasso, having these [coaches and trainers] all working with me.

"I know my game's way different than it was, and I do feel like I'm still getting better. I'm feeling better than I was back then. They create a great atmosphere here. We really just have a great place to come every day."

Video: Sharks honor Brent Burns on 1,000 Games

Some players in Burns' position might have felt threatened when the Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Senators on Sept. 13. Why did they need Karlsson? How would this affect ice time, power-play time, et cetera?

Not Burns, not at this stage of his career, not here. Karlsson had won the Norris Trophy twice and arrived with fanfare. But Burns had won it himself, and he was entering the second year of an eight-year contract, and he knew how the team and his teammates felt about him.

Burns also saw a kindred spirit.

Listen to how he answered one question about Karlsson, bringing up Thornton and the overall environment in San Jose, unprompted. It all ties together.

"I think that was exciting," Burns said. "[Karlsson is] similar in the way hockey is one aspect of our lives. We have a lot of different things in common.

"We're kind of cut from a looser mold [in San Jose]. I think a lot of that comes from getting the chance to play with a guy like [Thornton] and knowing that that's OK to be like that. We're different than other guys. Neither way is right. I think it's just different. I think some guys are all about hockey and very focused. Our way of doing that is by being looser and having fun. …

"I mean, [Thornton is] definitely one of the best to ever play hockey, and anybody that's ever had the chance to be around him, you can just feel his energy, his passion, just his general joy of being around the rink. So that goes a long way in allowing everybody else to be themselves and be different.

"And having [Karlsson] here, it's been awesome. It's been great for me on and off the ice. You get to learn from a guy like that, pick up different things. … He's fun to watch, fun to talk to. You pick up different things, pick his brain on different things. And just hanging out off the ice, [Karlsson and his wife, Melinda] have been awesome here. They're great people to be around. They have a great energy.

"At the end of the day, we're all in this to win, and he's going to make us a lot better."

Burns and Karlsson often anchor different pairs at even strength and on the penalty kill. But they sometimes play together at even strength, and they often play together on the power play. 

Karlsson has 43 points (three goals, 40 assists). Since Dec. 2, he has 28 points (one goal, 27 assists), tied with Giordano for most among NHL defensemen. Burns is next with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists).

Burns said he heard Karlsson say it didn't matter what he did individually anymore, and he brought up Thornton again.

"At this point, [Karlsson] just wants to win," Burns said. "We've got a guy like Jumbo that is probably the best teammate anybody's ever played with on and off the ice. … You just want to win for guys like that, and that's what it comes down to now."

* * * * * 

Burns used to watch the All-Star Game growing up, year after year, format after format, adding jerseys to his collection. He remembers the 1997 game in San Jose, when Sharks forward Owen Nolan called his shot on goaltender Dominik Hasek and completed a hat trick.

"I've still got all those jerseys -- the purple ones, the teal ones, the different ones as they changed to World and North America," Burns said. "Oh, yeah. I grew up a hockey kid."

This will be Burns' sixth All-Star Game. But this one will be in San Jose, and this will be another moment to share with his son, who is growing up a hockey kid too.

"This is the first year he started listing guys off," Burns said. "He loves Vegas, which is …"

Burns half-smiled, half-frowned. The Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Sharks in the Western Conference Second Round last year.

"It's a tough issue at home," Burns said. "He's asking if Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be there."

He laughed. He is his own man, a man in full, with childlike enthusiasm, appreciating it all.

"It's just a special place to play, the way you're treated here on and off the ice," he said. "And it goes quick, so you want to enjoy it."

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