by Wayne Karl, special to www.hockeycanada.ca
You can’t help but like Brent Burns. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, the 18-year-old Team Canada power forward is representing Canada for the first time ever here at the World Junior Championship in Helsinki. But he’s doing it well, and it’s obvious he’s having a blast.
Playing on a line with Jeff Carter and Ryan Getzlaf, Burns is often counted on to set an early tone for the type of game he and Team Canada have become known for: physical but with speed and skill.
Starting against the Czech Republic on Dec. 31 and the Ukraine Dec. 29, the forward on loan from the NHL’s Minnesota Wild delivered thunderous hits on the first shift.
“ Our line is here to set the tone early, keep the physical play going, and try to put some pucks in the net and some points on the board,” said Burns, always wearing a beaming smile. “We’ve been pretty successful so far with it, making the big hits and putting a couple points on the board. We’re just going to keep doing that and bring that into the medal round.”
A bad call during the opening seconds of the Czech game, however, sent Burns to the penalty box for checking to the head, which in international rules carries an automatic 10-minute misconduct. Burns hit his opponent hard against the side boards, but the player bent down to try to duck out of the way of the oncoming freight train. He didn’t, and Burns squeezed the player’s upper body hard into the glass.
“ I’ll take that hit, that penalty any game,” he said, when it was pointed out the hit looked clean. “Yeah, that’s what the coaches said to me too. They told me to make sure I go out there and do the same thing next shift, and not to worry, that it was a clean hit, and to keep doing what I was doing.”
Playing this role has earned Burns four points so far in the tournament, all assists, as well as the respect of his teammates and Canadian fans.
“ He brings us some leadership,” said Team Canada head scout Blair Mackasey. “Anybody who comes down from the NHL can bring that kid of leadership. He brings us some speed and the size we need. He’s a big power type of forward, and he fits in well with the rest of the guys.”
Burns’ preparation for his role on Team Canada begins well before each game. During dryland warm-ups before the players get dressed, he’s usually seen bouncing around the empty Helsinki Ice Arena in his hockey longjohns, hockey stick in hand, MP3 player headphones plugged into his ears.
“ I just like to listen to music and get away from the game, not really think about what’s going to happen,” Burns said.
As for the type of music on the MP3 player, Burns offers a vague, sheepish response: “It’s a secret,” he laughs. “It’s a whole mix of music. Some country to rap to rock, everything’s in there.”
Burns continues his pre-game ritual by stepping onto the freshly flooded ice in his running shoes and practises stick handling with a puck. That is, until Helsinki Ice Arena security staff gives him the thumbs-off sign. It’s a fitting prelude to his on-ice muckraking role.
“ I usually go on the ice, but in Minnesota I’m allowed to,” Burns said. “I like to go on the ice and feel the puck, and get that feeling that the ice is mine, since I’m the first one out there. It feels good.
“ After the first game (against Finland, a 3-0 win) the guy kicked me off after about five minutes. He and I have even talked about it, he knows he’s got to yell at me before I go, so I just wait for him to yell.”
During the on-ice pre-game warm-ups, Burns is routinely among the most energized Canadians, flying around the ice with the energy that helped earn him a spot on the Minnesota Wild this season.
Before the game against the Czech Republic on Dec. 31, a group of young Canadian fans was cheering him on, and a 20-something woman held up a sign that read: “Hey Brent, I’d make a great hockey wife.” While doing laps around the Canadian end of the ice, Burns saw the sign and burst out laughing. The fans, of course, did the same. Next time around, Burns tapped the glass as he flew by and gave a big smile, earning a big cheer.
It’s this kind of enthusiasm that contributes to Burns’ role as a leader on Team Canada, not so much in offence, but in helping to keep his teammates loose in the dressing room.
“ He’s a very happy go lucky kind of guy, Mackasey said. “One of the great things about coming down from the NHL is, as he says, “Geez, there’s a lot of guys here (at the WJC) my own age here.’ It’s like he’s back with his friends.
“ It’s good for him and it’s been good for us too.”
Returning to junior hockey here at the World Junior Championship, after playing with the Wild, has also taken some getting used to, Burns said.
“ There’s a big adjustment with different systems, different guys, and the speed of the game’s a little different too,” he said. “But here everyone is an elite player too, and the hockey’s great. It’s not really a step down from the NHL. Everyone’s a great player and the competition is high. There’s a lot up for grabs so, everyone’s working really hard and it’s really good hockey.”
The only thing Burns is enjoying more than his Helsinki experience is playing for Minnesota.
“ I love it there. The hockey’s fun and for the off ice part it’s nice to have that family background to keep me grounded. It’s awesome.”
Judging by his personality, it will take a lot more than family values to keep Burns down to earth should Team Canada win gold. He’s sure to lead the celebration.