Those who have followed the Minnesota Wild since its inception have watched the career development of Brent Burns since he was 18. When fans see him on the ice, they know he’s a big, dynamic defenseman whose enthusiasm and exuberance are apparent to anybody in an arena seat.
If fans have done any digging into his off-ice persona, they know he’s a grown up kid with a passion for many things other than hockey, most notably animals and the military. For evidence of his animal love, you just need to walk into his house where you’ll be greeted by dogs, lizards, birds, snakes and fish.
To learn more about his interest in the military, you just need to ask him, much like he did with his granddad. Brent’s grandfather, Patrick served in World War II as an artilleryman and lived with Brent and his family for more than 20 years.
Burns and his brothers would gather around Patrick as he regaled them with story after story from his time fighting for freedom in Europe. Brent was hooked on the subject of war, and soon he found himself raiding his father’s bookshelf, which was filled with wartime books. He was enthralled with the stories, not just of World War II, but in all of history’s major conflicts.
“I wish I was a little bit older, a little more mature when [Patrick] was around,” admits Burns, who lost his grandfather in 1998. “I would have asked him more questions.”
Even though he was a youngster, Burns was studious, and he vividly remembers many of his grandfather’s stories. But more than that, he remembers those stories as a way to connect with his grandfather.
“He was always willing to talk about his experiences,” he said. “He could tell I was interested in it, and it was a special time between the two of us.”
Burns’ interest in the military didn’t just become a private hobby. His success in hockey has afforded him the opportunity to say thank you to the men and women who serve in person. Last year, he purchased a suite called “Burnzie’s Battalion” at Xcel Energy Center for military personnel to use, and this year, he and his wife, Susan, are again donating Wild tickets through “Defending the Blue Line
In addition to sending military families to hockey games, the charity assists families of all branches of the military with costs associated with hockey. They provide financial assistance for registration fees, free equipment and summer hockey camps.
But the servicemen and women aren’t the only beneficiaries in this relationship. Burns says he gets something out of it too, and admits he gets as giddy to meet with them, as they do when meeting him.
“The best thing about this relationship is they’re not as familiar with some of the little things we do in our life, and they get an insight into what we do,” he explained. “And I’m not really familiar with all that they do every day, so it works both ways. They get excited to hear things about hockey, and I get excited to hear about what they go through and what they get to do.”
Sometimes, he even gets the chance to do some of what they do. He’s been invited to firing ranges and National Guard training grounds to get a taste of their lifestyle.
“It’s been pretty amazing to hear their stories, and to go with them to the shooting range,” he said. “I feel so lucky every time I’m able to do that.”
Brent doesn’t need a reminder that this Thursday is Veteran’s Day in the United States, and Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day, which is the reason for many NHL personnel wearing red flowers on their jacket lapels) in Canada. He has artifacts throughout his house that remind him of the sacrifices of others, and there are two in particular that he talked about in detail.
Hanging in his home is a photo of his great grandfather’s grave in France, where he died during World War I. Brent’s sister found it while backpacking through Europe, so she took a “Burnzie’s Battalion” hat and T-shirt, and draped it over the grave with flowers in the foreground.
“She took the picture gave it to me for my birthday,” said Burns. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The other near and dear possession is a bumper sticker sent to him from his mom, which says, “If you don’t want to stand behind our soldiers, stand in front of them.”
And for Burns, that captures what the spirit of Veteran’s Day is about.
“Veteran’s Day is a huge thing for everybody, especially as time goes on and there’s less veterans around,” he said. “It’s super important to remember what everybody did, not just in World War I and II, but in all the wars, especially with the time we’re going through right now.
“Whether you believe in it or not, you have to support what they do every day of their lives. And it’s not just for them, but their families. [Veterans Day and Remembrance Day] is a very special time.”