No player in Brampton Battalion history accomplished more in fewer games than did Brent Burns.
Chosen in the third round of the Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selection in 2001, Burns debuted with the Battalion in 2002-03. A right winger, he skated in 68 regular-season games and all 11 playoff games before being selected 20th overall by the Minnesota Wild in the National Hockey League’s 2003 Entry Draft.
Burns became the third Battalion player chosen in the first round, following defenceman Rostislav Klesla and left winger Raffi Torres, taken third and fourth overall in 2000 by the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders respectively.
A preseason game Aug. 31, 2003, against the host Guelph Storm would be Burns’s last appearance in a Battalion uniform, as the 18-year-old headed off to the Wild’s camp, eventually signing a three-year entry-level contract and appearing in 36 games on the blue line.
“It was pretty crazy, huh?” Burns said via telephone from San Jose, Calif., where he’s in his second season with the NHL’s Sharks.
Burns didn’t figure to be seeing the last of the Battalion when he headed off to Minnesota.
“I only packed a little duffel bag, because I figured I’d only be there for a week. But then I was there for a month and a half before I signed a deal, so I didn’t even have any money to buy any clothes. You go there confident, but you don’t really expect to stay.”
Burns, a Barrie native who turns 28 on March 9, recorded six points, including one goal, in an NHL rookie season in which he missed time with a separated shoulder and a commitment with the Canadian national junior team.
“I played 36 games but was a healthy scratch a lot. I always hear people say you shouldn’t rush young players, but I still think it was the best thing for me to be there and learn from a lot of the older guys who were there. You don’t even have to play games to benefit from that. Just practising and traveling with those guys helped me, and I learned so many lessons from the older guys.”
Burns acknowledged that being chosen by a different club, one without a bent for keeping young players in the NHL, might have meant a return to Brampton. Before Burns, the Wild had accelerated the progress of three other high draft picks, Marian Gaborik, Nick Schultz and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
“You know a team like the Detroit Red Wings develops its players differently, and you might go to the minors for a few years. In Minnesota, the circumstances were perfect. I was able to learn from coaches like Jacques Lemaire and Mike Ramsay.”
Burns went into the draft, at Nashville, Tenn., ranked 39th among North American-based skaters by the NHL’s central scouting department. He said he didn’t believe he’d go in the first round and figured Battalion teammate Kamil Kreps, slotted 22nd by central scouting, would be chosen ahead of him. Kreps was taken in the second round by the Florida Panthers.
“My only thought was how cool it would be to get drafted. I was with my dad at the draft, and we were hoping I would go on the first day in one of the first three rounds. I knew a lot of the guys who were up for the draft, and we were trying to figure out what each team would do. We thought that the Wild, coached by a guy like Jacques, who was a defensive specialist, would pick Kreps. When they announced their pick was from the Brampton Battalion, we both thought they were taking Kreps, and when they announced my name it just got crazy.”
Before being picked by the Wild, Burns was one of a number of fine rookies with the Battalion, joining 16-year-old left winger Wojtek Wolski, forwards Jamie Fraser and Ryan Oulahen, blueliners Martin Lojek and Stuart Simmons and goaltender Kevin Couture.
“I was a kid in a candy store when I got my first green helmet,” Burns recalled. “It was always something I had loved. I still love the Battalion sweater. It will always be one of my favourites. It was no different when I went to the NHL. I was just happy to get some Wild stuff with the NHL logo on it. When you’re that age, those things mean a lot.”
Burns scored in his OHL debut, a 6-0 win over the visiting London Knights in the Troops’ season opener, but had to wait 15 games before scoring again.
“I didn’t get a lot of playing time. I was just learning from other guys. I wasn’t counted on to put up a lot of points, and if I did it was nice.”
Heading into the Christmas break, Burns had three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 33 games. He produced 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 35 games the rest of the away, taking advantage of the absence of captain Jay McClement, who was with the Canadian national junior team. McClement missed 21 games with tournament obligations and a knee injury suffered in group play.
“I looked at it like two different seasons,” said Burns, who would join Wolski on the OHL’s first All-Rookie team. “Before Christmas I was in a fourth-line role, just trying to get used to the league. Then after Christmas everything changed. I started playing a lot more, and my whole game changed.”
Burns credited a number of teammates with helping him improve.
“I played a lot with Chris Rowan. I always looked at him as a leader. He was the kind of guy I wanted to follow around. He was so skilled. Ryan Bowness was the ultimate teammate, great to play with and learn from, and he had a great work ethic. McClement knew the game so well. I was pretty lucky to get a chance to learn from those guys.”
Burns contributed eight points, including five goals, in the Battalion’s six-game triumph over the Barrie Colts in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal. He netted the winning goal in the first overtime game in Battalion playoff history, scoring 20 seconds into extra time in the opening game. Burns, who led the Troops in playoff scoring, added three assists in the Troops’ next series, when they were ousted in five games by the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors after opening the series with a 7-0 home-ice win.
“The playoffs were definitely special for me, getting a chance to play Barrie in the playoffs in front of my family and a lot of my friends. I had a pretty good run in that series. The next series didn’t work out so well. We had a pretty awesome team, but it’s a tough game to figure out sometimes. There are so many variables in the course of a game or series that you never know what might happen.”
Burns, married with two small children, said he has fond memories of his lone junior season. He’s believed to be the only Battalion player to have portrayed Sarge, the club’s iconic mascot, in an official event when he helped conduct an intramural volleyball tournament at Turner Fenton Secondary School.
“Brampton was awesome. It was the first time I got to play in big arenas. I loved going to school with the guys. Hanging out with them made it a lot more fun. That was the first time I’d ever lived away from home. Movie night was great. It was like another family.”
Burns said he took much of what he learned with the Troops into his professional career.
“The NHL season is such a grind and, as a young guy, you’re thrown into so many new things that you have to depend on your teammates and the people you trust. It was pretty tough and, even though I’m in my 10th season, I’m still figuring things out. But that experience in Brampton was huge in helping me develop.”
Burns said he was sad to hear the Battalion will relocate to North Bay for the 2013-14 season.
“I think it’s crazy that North Bay hasn’t had a team all these years, but I loved Brampton. People always talked about the attendance, and I understand it’s a business, but I loved my time there. It was a great junior city, and it’s tough to see it go.”