Eastern Conference final is ‘a match-up between Barrie’s least-known elite player and perhaps the Colts’ most notable graduate,’ sports columnist explains
When you walk into Barrie North Collegiate, Brent Burns’s picture hangs on the wall as part of that school’s wall of honour.
Clad in a Team Canada jersey from one of his world championship appearances, it’s almost as if one of Barrie’s best hockey players hides in plain sight even at the high school from which he graduated 20 years ago.
Not a lot of local people even realize Burns, the Carolina Hurricanes defenceman, has significant roots in Barrie.
Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final between Burns’s Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers, for whom Aaron Ekblad patrols the blue line, goes tonight in Raleigh, N.C., where Burns was traded last summer.
It’s a match-up between Barrie’s least-known elite player (Burns) and perhaps the Colts’ most notable graduate (Ekblad).
With the Hurricanes and Panthers vying for a spot in the Stanley Cup final, either Burns and Ekblad are going to get the opportunity to play for the Cup.
“Having a chance to win it all is really all that matters right now,” Burns said when he was traded to the Hurricanes last summer after 11 seasons with the San Jose Sharks. “… It was a good fit for us (to move to Carolina) as hard as it was to make the decision to leave San Jose.”
For all Burns has accomplished in his career, the ultimate team prize is one of few that is missing. He has won the World Championship and been twice selected the best defenceman in the tournament, seven years apart in 2008 and 2015. He won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman in 2017 and was also part of Canada’s 2016 World Cup-winning squad.
Burns’s longest run in the post-season came seven years ago with the Sharks, losing in the final in six games to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Eleven years younger, Ekblad’s career has, like the Panthers, been more up and down. The Panthers have been largely devoid of playoff success until this season, and Ekblad has been unlucky with injuries. But his career stat line is still impressive: 625 games played, 111 goals, 218 assists, with 32 games played, two goals and nine assists in the playoffs. There is a general sense the Panthers’ success in the past two seasons has been in line with Ekblad’s improved health, though he has still missed 32 games in that span.
Like the 27-year-old Ekblad, who hails from the Windsor area, Burns, now 38, wasn’t born here but came to town in his preteen years. He played just one season of minor hockey in town before returning to play in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. Just before entering the OHL, he came back to the area to suit up for the Couchiching Terriers for a season. Burns’s single OHL season with the Brampton Battalion followed.
Though a late bloomer as an amateur, Burns is now one of the NHL’s precious few players who is still a leading contributor into his late 30s. He has two more years on his contract after this season.
“I don’t really think about that kind of stuff,” Burns said of how he views his longevity. “I love working. That is one of the reasons why I’m still here, (but) don’t get me wrong; I still like my Tim Hortons and my bag of potato chips.”
Ekblad came to Barrie in 2012. He was just the third player granted exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old, and the Colts took him with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 draft. Three years later, the Panthers made Ekblad the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft.
Compared to Ekblad’s largely pre-ordained development, Burns’s road to the NHL was different in a few ways. He was used largely as a forward in minor hockey and junior, but when the Minnesota Wild took him with the 20th overall selection in the 2003 NHL Draft, he was converted to a defenceman.
That move paved the way for Burns’s long NHL career, which has now reached 1,333 games and another 106 in the playoffs. He has 838 regular-season points (245 goals, 593 assists) and 71 (22 goals, 49 assists) in the playoffs.
Burns is a dead-certain pick to go into the Hall of Fame after he retires, likely when he first becomes eligible.
It’s tenuous, but if you’re looking for another local angle, there is one in former Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough. He was the man who selected Burns and who, along with then-Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire, moved him back to the blue line. Risebrough, who won four Stanley Cups as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, spent a swath of his childhood during the 1960s in Barrie.
Both Burns and Ekblad took part in Thursday night’s epic four-overtime marathon. Burns turned the puck over in his own end. It ended up on the stick of Matthew Tkachuk and in the Hurricanes’ goal with just seconds remaining in the fourth overtime period.
Despite being more than a decade younger than most of his teammates, Burns has routinely led the ’Canes in ice time during both the regular season and the playoffs. He played a whopping 54:43 minutes on Thursday, compared to Ekblad’s 52:10. According to the NHL’s Edge tracking system, Ekblad skated a total of 7.73 miles on Thursday night, while Burns skated 7.65.
Ekblad, who is enjoying a good playoff with the Cinderella Panthers, scored the game’s first goal in Florida’s series-clinching win over the Leafs last Friday.