The San Jose Sharks Defenseman On Hockey, Heroes, And Giving Back
Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks is not just one or the most colorful players in the National Hockey League—known for his bushy beard and menagerie of snakes and other animals—he's one of the best. The four-time All-Star led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Finals last year and is considered a favorite to win this year's Norris Trophy, which is given to the league's top defenseman. Burns has also been honored for his contributions off the ice: He won the NHL Foundation Player Award in 2015 for his support of active military members, and he was a finalist for ESPN's Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2016. He shares his thoughts about his charity work, as told to GOOD:
When you want to get involved in giving back, it's got to be a passion. Everybody's different. For some it's animals. Some people have a history of cancer. It's whatever your passions are. For me, that's the military.
The military's always been a part of my life. My wife's family is very involved in the military, and it's something I've always wanted to do. If you've seen me off the ice, you probably know I have colorful tattoos all over, but not on my left arm. That space is reserved for a tribute to my great-grandfather and grandfather, who fought in the two World Wars.
My grandfather lived with me till he passed away, and he was a huge influence on me. I'd ask about his time in the service and in World War II, and he'd tell me stories. It brought us together. I've always said if I didn't play hockey, I'd be in the military.
Brent Burns accepting the 2015 NHL Foundation Award. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
When I was playing in Minnesota, I met Shane Hudella, who was serving in the National Guard. We talked about how I could help out, and he thought about it and then started an organization called Defending the Blue Line to help military families stay active and healthy by providing free hockey equipment, camps, and financial assistance for league registration fees. It also provides tickets to military families to go to college and pro games. The organization recently changed its name to United Heroes League and expanded from hockey to a variety of sports.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I've always said if I didn't play hockey, I'd be in the military.[/quote]
I never played any other sports. I grew up in a hockey family and I always loved hockey. It's just such a great game. You learn so much that you can take into your normal life. Teamwork. Hard work. Responsibility. It's a great thing for kids to keep them out of trouble. I mean, you find your own trouble, but I was happy to skip that high school party—or whatever. I just wanted to play hockey.
I've always wanted my kids, who are almost 6 and almost 7, to play sports, do a martial art, and play an instrument. I feel like those things give three different values, three different lifestyle lessons.
Burns on the ice in Buffalo. Photo by Bill Wippert/Getty Images
Like every kid, I had that dream of winning the Stanley Cup. I guess I pictured myself in a Maple Leafs sweater, but sometimes it might have been Detroit. I was more of a Leafs fan because I grew up in Toronto, but I always loved Detroit. I liked the Rangers too. At that point I just loved hockey.
I still do, and I love to share it. We have a luxury suite for military families at every Sharks home game. We call them Burnzies Battalion. It's an honor to meet them and hear their stories. There's always a moment when you just get to see their happiness. We get a lot of unbelievable letters from families who enjoyed their excursion to the game after the father or mother has been away for eight months or a year. Or maybe they've got a deployment coming up and this is their big send-off.
It's not just about hockey. They may have never even watched hockey before. It's just a family night. It's about getting them out together.
It's important for them to know how much everybody respects and thanks them for what they do, the sacrifices they make—not only with their lives in some cases, but all of them sacrifice their time and family life, missing so much with their kids. All of that allows us to play a game we love and make a living doing it.
And for me, meeting these families lets me live out my fantasy of being like them. I get to meet amazing people. They're very similar to us. They're passionate about their way of life and they have the same love-but-ribbing thing that hockey guys have. It's easy to for us to fit in their world and easy for them to come into our world.