Tales of Brent Burns: Teammates talk cheetah attacks, his ‘Mary Poppins’ bag and loving the NHL’s ‘big kid’
Greg Wyshynski, ESPNMay 22, 2023, 07:00 AM ET
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s conformity among many NHL players. And then there’s Brent Burns.
Breaking up the parade of monotone business suits and well-groomed exteriors while entering the arena is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman wearing loud patterns, lugging a comically enormous camouflage backpack and sporting a chaotic scraggle of beard around a toothless hockey grin.
That’s the Brent Burns you see. The Brent Burns you hear about is one of the most unique star athletes in all of professional sports, let alone the NHL.
He’s the “big kid” in a 38-year-old body. There’s the menagerie of animals he owns. There’s his hyperintelligence, learning facts and skills so quickly that it’s like his brain was plugged into “The Matrix” and downloaded them. And of course, there’s that mysterious bag.
We spoke with several people who have known Brent Burns in the NHL to hear some tales of the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who has helped the Carolina Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference finals in his first season with the club.
Here are Hurricanes teammates Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Sebastian Aho; former San Jose Sharks teammates Logan Couture, Brenden Dillon and Colin White; former Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks teammate Dominic Moore; and Mike Potenza, director of performance for the Golden State Warriors and former director of strength and conditioning of the Sharks (2006-2022), talking all things Brent Burns.
The first time I met him
Burns debuted in the NHL in 2003-04, having been selected 20th overall in the 2003 draft by the Minnesota Wild. He played for the Wild until 2011, when he was traded to the San Jose Sharks. He played 11 seasons for the Sharks, winning the Norris Trophy in 2017. In 2022, he was traded to the Hurricanes.
Moore: We were in Minnesota together. Jacques Lemaire was the coach. We were doing a battle drill, all below the goal line, and Burnzie just basically beasted three forwards in a row. It was like watching a Jason Bourne movie where he takes out three guys with one fell swoop. All three guys were still flat on the ice, and Lemaire just chuckled. I knew right away that this kid was special.
Couture: He’s intimidating when you first see him. He’s got all the tattoos and he’s just big. I can’t remember if he had teeth or not back then. I don’t think he did. But then you talked to him and he was just a fun-loving, easygoing guy, joking all the time. He’s kind of like a larger than life character.
Slavin: The first time I interacted with him after the trade [to Carolina], I sent him a text message asking him to come to something. He didn’t text back. He didn’t send a voice memo. He took a video of himself explaining what the situation was. He’s outside at his camper. Hat on, no teeth, in a camo cutoff shirt. Just enjoying the Raleigh humidity. And so that was my first interaction with him. I was like, “Oh, this guy’s hilarious.”
Potenza: I remembered him from Minnesota because he beat [the Sharks] up for four points in one game. He wore No. 8. He had short hair. He was big and he could skate. He was a pest against us. And then we get him and it’s like, “Holy s—, this is great!”
Dillon: I met him in 2014 when I was traded to San Jose. He didn’t have a beard yet. He had played the previous season at forward, but I ended up playing the rest of that season with him on defense. I mean, you’re a little intimidated. It’s Brent Burns. It’s an NHL All-Star. I had to get past the 6-foot-5 mammoth that had been running me the previous two years at forward. Burnzie is one of those bull-in-a-china-shop guys.
Couture: It’s absolutely insane he made the move from forward to defense so well. He played both in San Jose. I played a few games with him as my right wing and with Jumbo [Joe Thornton]. Then you see him winning the Norris Trophy as a defenseman. I couldn’t picture myself going back there to do that.
Potenza: When he showed up in San Jose, I realized he’s got a ton of tattoos — and got even more during his time with the Sharks. I don’t know if I was as surprised at the tattoos as much as I was the snake collection.
Burns is famous for having a collection of pets, mostly reptiles. It’s a passion for exotic animals he has shared with teammates — for better or worse.
Dillon: You would hear all of these things. Like he’s got a gorilla in his basement or an alligator in his garage.
Moore: In Minnesota, he had all the pets. Fish tanks and snakes and everything at his house.
Couture: When we first traded for him, there was all the stories about the snakes. I think there was a video online that I saw about them. And I was like, “Holy s—.” Because I’m afraid of snakes, so I’m never going over to his place.
Potenza: He had a monitor lizard. Why would anyone have a monitor lizard? You’re better off having a pit bull with a toothache than you are having a monitor lizard. Actually, I would take two pitbulls with toothaches, that were also hungry, over a friggin’ monitor lizard.
Dillon: He invited me over for dinner when I was traded. I didn’t know if had to be worried. I’m not the biggest bird guy. Would there be birds? I’ve never had, like, an iguana or anything. I got over there and he had some smaller animals. I think he actually had to leave most of his animals in Minnesota because his house there was pretty accustomed to hold all of them.
Couture: He told us some wild stories about them. Two of the snakes escaped at his place in Minnesota. They were lost in his house for while a certain amount of time. I was like, “Oh my God, how do you sleep at night? You’ve got two massive snakes roaming around the house and two small kids at that point!”
Moore: I remember he had gone to the zoo on an off day before a game in Columbus with some teammates and got clawed by a bobcat or something.
Couture: I think it was a cheetah.
White: It was an off day. It was me and Burnzie and Jumbo Joe. Burnzie’s into all these animals, right? He had a bunch of snakes and stuff then. I think he has pretty much a zoo now in Texas. Whatever city we were in, he would take us different places where there were animals. Like in Detroit, he took us to a snake farm.
And then we went to the zoo in Columbus. I’m not a real animal guy. I was terrified. He had it all set up where we would take a picture with a cheetah. And that’s when he got bit by one. Right in the ribs. [Laughs]
Moore: I remember thinking, “Oh my God.” Any general manager would cringe hearing that.
White: I was shocked. I was already nervous of this thing. They brought it out and they had treats and stuff, but then they told us to get around it for a picture. And this thing had its eyes on Burnzie the whole time. We got in close. Burnzie got closer to it and it reached over and grabbed him by the ribs. It didn’t get, like, a full bite. But it left these two fang marks.
Jumbo was going crazy laughing. I was laughing. Burnzie didn’t care. He wasn’t mad. He was laughing. We went back inside and they brought out a bunch of different animals. Burnzie knew I was scared of them and stuff. It was all funny as heck.
Couture: The next day we saw them after the cheetah had clawed at them. I was like, “Jesus guys, this is wild.”
What’s in the bag?
Burns carries a large, camouflage backpack around the arena and on road trips. Those who have looked inside were surprised by what they found.
Potenza: Did you ever see “Mary Poppins”? When Mary Poppins has that bag and she pulls out a giant lamp? Brent Burns is like Mary Poppins.
Couture: The bag is full. There’s probably 20 pounds of stuff in there. Like, he’s sweating carrying it. In New York, when we play the Rangers, you have to walk up this hill [from the buses] and he’s got to carry that bag. And he’s just leakin’, because he’s got so much extra weight on him.
Moore: He had the bag in Minnesota, but I think there’s been an evolution with it along with how the game has evolved. There’s more and more recovery and pregame things that players do. So he’s got things in there that he needs to have before or after the game.
Potenza: He’s got some essential oils in there, whether it be to help him be relaxed and calm during sleep or if he’s got soreness in his shoulder or what have you. Some muscle-rub type things.
Couture: In the last few years [in San Jose], he and I sat next to each other on the plane. So I finally really got to see what’s inside the bag. First, he’s got a blender in there. He brings his own coffee on the road — Black Rifle Coffee Company. Three or four bags of it.
Skjei: I’ve gone over to his room for coffee, so I know there’s a coffee machine in there. All that stuff requires a big bag. There’s a lot of moving parts, but the coffee’s good and it works for him.
Couture: He’s got supplements. He has these little things that he rolls on [his body]. He’s got all of his vitamins. He’s got bottles of water he takes from the rink — if a team has Smart Water or Fiji, he packs his bag full of these water bottles because he thinks they’re nicer waters. I think that’s it. Oh, and some knives. He had an axe one time, too.
Dillon: Let’s just say a couple times when he’s gone through security, he’s had to answer a couple questions.
Couture: One of his passions is knives. He always gets his knives from Grizzly Forge. He just loves the finishes on them. I mean, I’m not a knife person, but they’re beautiful knives. He uses one to take the tape off his stick between periods. It’s different.
Potenza: I’ve had to go in the bag to get stuff out for him. If you’ve seen the bag up close, there are probably 30 pockets in that bag. He’s asked me to find something. I’d have to go back to him three or four times. “Like, what pocket is it in?” And he’s like, “The front one with the double zipper, but not the back zipper.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what you you’re talking about.” Then I’d go to pick up the bag — and it weighs pretty much how much I weigh — and I lug it over to him and I’m like, “You find it.”
Slavin: It’s a couple bags now. He’s got his suitcase. He’s got his personal bag. Then he’s got his backpack. He’s just got a lot of stuff. For a one-day road trip, he’s packing over 200 pounds of stuff I think.
Though he was a baby-faced player for the Minnesota Wild, Burns grew out a bushy beard while with the San Jose Sharks, matching the face foliage of teammate Joe Thornton.
Potenza: Burnzie got going with it and I think he was like, “How long can I go with this thing?” It kind of made him more distinguished. If you see him saw him without the beard, or just a small beard, it’s like, “Man, you look super young.”
Dillon: The playoff beard-turned-lifestyle beard has definitely played a role in making him so recognizable. I remember around 2017, him and Connor McDavid were big Adidas guys. I remember being on the couch with Burnzie when [NBA star] James Harden tweeted at him:
Shout out to the best beard in hockey lol Welcome to #Teamadidas, @Burnzie88.
— James Harden (@JHarden13) October 7, 2017
I remember Burnzie kind of being like, “James Harden, why do I know that name?” I was like, “Dude, he’s one of the legends of the NBA right now. You’re one of the legends of the NHL right now.” And he’s like, “Do you think I should ask for an autographed jersey or something?”
I think sometimes when you talk about him being like a big kid, I sometimes think as good of a player as he is and confident in a player as he is, sometimes he maybe just doesn’t see himself in that way. Which is a big positive, because he continues to work hard at his game. But when you think about Brent Burns, I think you could ask a lot of Americans who maybe aren’t the biggest hockey fans and he’d be one of the most recognizable faces in the game.
Moore: On a personal note, he and his wife thought of shaving his beard with the proceeds going to my foundation. Super character guy. And he does a lot for other causes as well.
White: He’s a big military guy. He’s a huge supporter of them. He’s got Burnzie’s Battalion, his foundation that supports veterans.
Couture: He idolizes those guys, for sure. His brother was in special forces. His grandfather was in World War II with the Canadian military. It’s in the family, and that’s something that’s very important to him.
Potenza: He’s a big family man. It’s funny: In San Jose, all the kids seemed to be the same age at one point. [Joe] Pavelski‘s kids and Burns’s kids and [Patrick] Marleau’s kids. I remember blinking one day and I was like, “There’s like 10 boys running around this rink right now during practice. Who’s watching these kids?” And then they all got on the ice after practice.
He also loves being a dad and you can see that when he interacts with other kids. He may see me and my kids at the rink and he would engage with them: “How you doing? How’s your skating?”
White: He looks look like “Duck Dynasty,” but he’s a smart man.
“The most interesting man in the world”
From having a 420-acre Texas ranch where he raises free-range animals and hunts, to a variety of ever-changing off-ice interests, life is always fascinating for Burns and his teammates.
Dillon: He’s like the Dos Equis man. The most interesting man in the world. You love him as a teammate because you can’t stop laughing with some of the stuff he knows.
Skjei: It’s random stuff that you have no clue about. He’s very, very intellectual. Fun guy to go to dinner with. He just can talk about anything.
Moore: I can’t think of anyone else who has any of these kinds of passions or hobbies. If he has an idea, a creative idea, he pursues it. A lot of people, they have quirky, funny passions or ideas, but they don’t have the boldness or the follow through on it. I think that speaks volumes about him in general.
Dillon: You can talk to him for basically 24 hours straight and hockey might not ever come up once. You might talk about animals or the weather or UFC or boxing or football. Literally anything Burnzie does or knows, he’s super, super knowledgeable about it.
Couture: Him and I have very similar interests, whether it was wine or coffee or bourbon or food, our books, podcasts. He’s introduced me to a lot of authors that I read now. He’d sit on a plane and would just talk about anything for an hour. I would sit back and learn from him. He finds something he’s interested in and just digs right in.
Dillon: I remember we had a paintballing event with the Sharks. All of us show up in jeans and a sweater or something. He comes with a head-to-toe custom professional paintball outfit. His gun is basically the machine gun of paintball. We’re just all renting the ones from the place.
Moore: All of a sudden, he got an interest in cycling. He would go out and get all the gear and a brand new bike and he would go to the nth degree with it — just go completely all-in. But then he wasn’t like short-lived with those things. He sticks with them and kind of continues those passions that he picks up along the way. Just a bright, thoughtful guy.
Couture: We went to Tahoe at the start of one year and we were going to go on a two-mile hike. Burnzie shows up in full hiking equipment. He was head to toe in all this hiking stuff. Like, he brought walking sticks. His backpack was full. Probably 30 pounds of s— in there. He fell behind the guys so much because he was just dragging along so much extra weight. It was actually quite a hilarious day.
Potenza: He dives into researching or studying up on something in particular that he’s passionate about. He’s dove into collecting wine and collecting special whiskeys. He got into surfing a little bit early in his career. He’s always impressed me on how he’s read so much. I think that’s how he become so well-rounded.
Dillon: He’s got at least 10 to 15 guitars. He’s an unbelievable guitarist. I forget how he learned how to play, but a lot of it is self-taught. Some people don’t know that about him. They just know him as Brent Burns from the ranch.
Couture: He would always talk about how great elk meat is. I know he cooks quite a bit of that. He’s great on the barbecue. That’s one of his other passions is cooking meat. And he’s very good at it. He studies it and talks to a lot of people about how to properly cook it.
Aho: He has his meats, right? I’ve been over for dinner a few times. He’s a pretty great cook.
Dillon: Master grill man. I mean, he had everything. He had the Traeger [smoker] before the Traeger was a thing. He had the [Big] Green Egg. He had all those different smokers. And he has all his fresh meat from his ranch. So he’s a big, big red meat guy, naturally. But being all organic, he knows where it’s from and all that. He grills pizza and brisket and steak. Never had a bad meal at the Burns house.
Couture: If you ask 20 guys in the locker room, they’ll tell you they feel like they’re one of Burnzie’s good friends just because he’s into so much and so knowledgeable.
Fun-loving guy … to a point
While Burns is one of the NHL’s great characters, when it comes to on-ice action and keeping himself in shape, few compare to Brent Burns.
Aho: He’s unreal. A great guy. He just brings his own personality in the locker room and is a really, really easy guy to get along with. But on the ice, you don’t have to talk about that too much. He’s been doing this for, I don’t know, a lot of years.
Moore: I played with him in Minnesota and then again in San Jose about four years later. I didn’t see any difference really from a young Burnzie to the more veteran Burnzie. I think that speaks to the same kind of thing that [Carolina coach] Rod Brind’Amour has commented on: That he has a youthful presence and personality. I believe he’s unchanged about who he is. It’s the juxtaposition between that adaptability in terms of evolving as a player over the course of a long career to stay in the league, with the reality of being the same person throughout all of that.
White: He’s an amazing athlete. Anybody who’s played with him, I mean, you see what he is doing at 38 years old and he’s on one of the fittest teams in the league, especially when your coach is “Rod the Bod.” So yeah, I mean, I read an article the other day. He finished second in the [Hurricanes’] physical testing at the beginning of the year at 38. He’s a machine.
Potenza: He didn’t love training, but he respected it and he knows how important it is for the longevity and the performance of his career. So that’s where we hit it off. We had some bumpy periods with injuries for him, but we navigated through it and he’s come out obviously as a tremendous player — even though he is a few years removed now from his Norris Trophy, he’s just still dominant.
Moore: He’s not thick. He’s just strong. It’s not the farmer’s strength like we talk about with those guys out West. He’s wiry. It’s just the way he moves, and his natural athleticism gives him his power.
Potenza: He pushed himself. He always wanted to look for things that he could improve, look for new strategies. I think when you’ve been in the league for that long, you do need new stimulus. You do need new training or modes of exercise that can actually keep you developing and adapting.
Moore: If you remember, he had gotten injured one season. Missed a lot of time. If you look at it, he’s been barely hurt since then. It’s like a switch flipped where he was like, “OK, I’ve got to take care of my body and stay on the ice.” You learn from things.
Potenza: I’m always impressed that he keeps such detailed notes. There’s been a few athletes — and Pavelski was another one — who keep notes on all the workouts they’ve done. Like, he has workouts that he did as a rookie in Minnesota in a binder, stored away. Performance coaching culture has gone away from the paper training to more digital apps to track workouts. And Burnzie doesn’t want to use the app because he’s got all these notes. He’s a collector. Maybe he’ll share it with his son one day.
Dillon: That’s the thing that’s so impressive about Burnzie, and what I really took from him. He’s 38 now, but he’s still always asking questions. Like asking the forwards where they want the shot to go. Or asking a teammate what their read is on a play. For a lot of those guys that have had as much success as him, it’d be pretty easy to say, “I know everything.” And that’s not the mentality at all.
Couture: He knows when to buckle it down and be serious, but he is also always there for a good time and he can keep things light. He’s a tremendous leader. He works so hard. He picked some of that up from Jumbo and Pavelski and Marleau, and guys like that. But that’s also one thing that I’m sure he’s always had in him. His work ethic is incredible. That’s why he is still playing, and he is still incredible.
Slavin: I think he’s the biggest kid in this locker room and just loves the game. He’s just one of a kind.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.