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Sharks' Burns equally as colorful as his suits

Defenseman boasts eclectic tastes from wine to snakes

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- It's hard to completely describe Brent Burns and, yet, so incredibly easy. He is all the things you think he is, a larger-than-life approximation of a fairy tale character, a lover of snakes and iguanas and other unappreciated creatures, an oenophile, a military buff, a clotheshorse, a road-trip taker, an obsessive, a father and one damn good hockey player.

He is colorful, quite literally, in his tattoos and his missing teeth and his ability to grow a Rip Van Winkle beard.

Imagine: The future San Jose Sharks defenseman is 11 years old. His skills coach, Jari Byrski, had set up a skills competition, which happens at the NHL All-Star Game, which Burns would be named to for the first time around 15 years later. But this is in 1996, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

So, picture it: There's a dressing room designed for 20 players, which is stuffed full of 30 or 40 pre-teen boys and one of them -- yes, Burns -- is standing on a bench to hang up some of his things and he starts yelling across the room.

Would Byrski like to know what Burns got for his 11th birthday from his father? Would he?

Of course. Why not?

The coach was expecting new skates, new equipment, the usual gifts for a Canadian hockey player from a father interested in fostering that love. He expected Burns to reach into his bag and pull out a gift, something bright and shiny and new.

The kid took off his T-shirt.

"He shows me on the shoulder here, by the biceps, he showed me a tattoo," Byrski said. "A tattoo of a hockey stick with a Canadian flag in it. I almost fell down. I had to scrape my teeth out of the floor because I just couldn't believe it. That's how he was."

That's how he is. In a world in which it's so easy to curl inward, to hole up with a Netflix subscription and an insulated environment, Burns does the opposite and, as Byrski said and others repeated almost word-for-word, "Whatever he does, he doesn't do it halfway." No, he unfurls himself outward, toward everything, toward the world. He sees and does and experiences as much as he possibly can.

"You know," said Mike Malloy, a friend of Burns and former San Jose Sharks player development employee, "he's not different than anybody else. He just shows it."

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"I don't like them," Logan Couture is saying. "I think they're horrible. He's got the worst ones in the League, for sure. Him and Don Cherry."

Couture is not talking about Burns' tattoos, which include a Harry Potter-themed image on his thigh. No, he is talking about Burns' suits, the eye-popping, retina-firing, pattern-boasting fever dream combinations of fabric that have become the defenseman's signature, and which he comes in, takes off, and throws on the counter after a road trip, according to fellow defenseman Brenden Dillon, his house guest for about three months at the start of the season.

They are, like the tattoos and the snakes and the black Mercedes sprinter van that is not only Burns' summer road trip home, but also his ride to the rink and the grocery store, simply a look into his personality writ large. ("Some people look for Maseratis, some people like Ferraris, some guys like Honda Civics, but for Burnzie, he wanted the black nine-seater, microwave-induced, bunk-bed living sprinter van," Dillon said.) They are his insides, outside.

On Thursday, after the Sharks pulled out a Game 5 win that sent the Stanley Cup Final back to San Jose for Game 6 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) with the Pittsburgh Penguins still leading 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, it was a teal plaid number with his usual bowtie and a pair of camouflage loafers.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm5: Burns opens the scoring early

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Which brings us to the backpack Burns carries, which is green camo, though Dillon can't quite understand why Burns doesn't have a variety of colors and fabrics to match his ever-changing suits.

"He's got everything from a Magic Bullet [technically a NutriBullet, according to reports] in there to his protein powders, bottled water, to a change of clothes," Dillon said. "We don't even know because we've tried to pick that thing up a couple times and you almost throw your back out picking it up. It's heavy. It ain't light. You've got to be a 6-5, 230-pound man to be carrying that around every day."

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Which brings us to the military fixation.

When Burns was traded to the Sharks from the Minnesota Wild on June 24, 2011, Malloy, then a U.S. Air Force pararescueman, snagged his phone number from a mutual friend. The two had circled around each other for years, knowing the same people and having interests in common.

Malloy brought Burns to Moffett Federal Airfield, where he watched a couple of simulated missions, described this way by Malloy: "a simulated rescue mission in a devastated environment that was simulated to be -- it was blown up and we just went around and watched my team do their mission, clearing the buildings, getting the patients."

Burns participated, too, rappelling and climbing, and sharing his own expertise with Malloy and his buddies at their military ice time on Mondays and Fridays.

He was, as Malloy said, "just one of the boys."

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Which brings us to his summer vacations.

When hockey is finished for the season -- much later this season than any other in Sharks history -- Burns likely will do what he usually does, packing his wife and two kids into that sprinter van and driving. He did this last summer, eventually stopping in his hometown of Barrie, Ontario, where he met up with Byrski and some of the rest of his old training crew, including sometimes Team Canada teammate and Dallas Stars center Jason Spezza, for a refresher course before hopping in the van and heading back across the country.

"It's just hilarious because literally the whole family is traveling in the car, in the van, and he's got his gear and he comes to the rink," said Spezza, who has known Burns since they were in middle school and Burns would have sleepovers with Spezza's younger brother, Matthew.

"And he skates and he's like scoring on 16-year-old goalies and celebrating like it's a goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs."

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Which brings us to the gun ranges and the mixed martial arts and the fact that Burns, when he was the 16 year old, was Steven Stamkos' on-ice instructor.

"I never forget that Steven said to me that Brent Burns is his favorite instructor," Bryski said. "That he wants to, when he grows up, he wants to be like him."

Video: Thornton, Burns on their playoff beards

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The cry goes up from across a dressing room crowded with sweaty players and media members and NHL staffers. There are bodies everywhere. Burns recognizes the sound, immediately. In the midst of answering a question about Joe Thornton, Burns says, "My meat. My little meatball, right there."

"Dad-dy?" the voice asks, rising in demand or panic, it's unclear which. "Daddy? Daddy, where are you?"

A sandy-haired kid appears, with merely a passing resemblance to Burns. Really, though, it would be almost impossible to compare features between this mite and the giant, bearded, gap-toothed defenseman.

The Sharks have reason to celebrate in this particular moment. After all, they have just won the first Stanley Cup Final game in the franchise's history. The last question is asked, finally, and Burns is released. Released to go off with his 4 year old, off to steal some free stuff from the equipment room, a suggestion that prompts that son, Jagger, to exult in his privileged position and willing coconspirator.

Lil' Burns is already minorly famous, a consequence of his participation in his father's epic showing at the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, when he stole the show and the hearts of anyone watching.

That is because it is difficult not to delight in Burns, difficult to ignore the quirks and the color and the joy with which he approaches just about everything. This is a person who refers to himself as a "goofy donkey," and seems to back up the statement at every turn. He delights in the world, and the world -- more and more, with his increasing profile -- delights in him.

The pair walk off, bound for the equipment room, bound to find what they can find and steal what they can steal: A small child in an oversized hockey jersey and an oversized child in a tank top and shorts.

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