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Red Wings overnight report: remembering Shawn Burr

I started following the Red Wings during the 1991-92 season, and my favorite line consisted of Sergei Fedorov, Paul "Rocketman" Ysebaert, and a pudgy grinder who essentially made room for his more-skilled teammates to do their thing in one Shawn Burr.

For a young kid who found himself standing six feet tall and 250 pounds (no matter how much or little I ate or exercised) at 13, Burr was someone to model myself after, as both a hockey player with little to no athletic skill and even a soccer player who'd spent seven years learning how to "make space" for people who were blessed with grace, skill and poise.

When I heard the news that "Skippy" Burr--Tomas Holmstrom before there was a Tomas Holmstrom, a fast-talking, self-depreciating "good guy" whose high-pitched voice belied his "six pack with the laundry piled on top"--had passed away, I was stunned.

The man kicked cancer's butt three times, he'd established a charitable foundation to encourage people to register for bone marrow donation, and despite finding himself among Scotty Bowman's purges after the Red Wings' 1995 Stanley Cup Final loss to the New Jersey Devils, Burr quickly mended fences with the Red Wings he grew up dreaming of playing for growing up in Sarnia, and he served as a savvy president of the Red Wings' Alumni Association until his first bout with multiple myleoma.

At 47, he's gone, and Bob Probert, Steve Chiasson, as Randy Mac noted on Twitter, Marc Potvin, Brad McCrimmon and now Burr are all gone from the 91-92 and 92-93 teams I fell in love with (and Vladdie Konstantinov continues to quietly rebuild himself sixteen years after suffering a traumatic brain injury). That's downright staggering.

Burr really was a "local guy" through and through. Like Ysebaert and later, Dino Ciccarelli, he grew up wanting to play for the Red Wings while watching the team from the Canadian side of the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, he was drafted by his "hometown" team, and while Burr had a couple of 20-goal and 50-or-so-point seasons, he was at his best when he was doing the dirty work, grinding out pucks on the forecheck, shoveling rebounds back to his more-skilled teammates, setting what were then-legal picks, banging bodies and occasionally dropping the gloves, his gums flapping and trash talk spewing from his mouth the entire time.

While I'm not a Bryan Murray fan, I'll give the Wings' former coach and GM credit: he helped set the blueprint of, "Build up the middle and on defense" philosophy that the Wings still follow to this day in terms of player development, and he also started seriously focusing upon placing a passer, a sniper and a grinding forechecker on as many lines as possible--and that's still the way Mike Babcock likes to balance his lines.

Despite the almost more chaotic personnel changes that the Wings endured during the early-to-mid 90's, Burr always contributed, regardless of whether he was on the first line or the fourth line, and while he grumbled, he also happily embraced whatever role the Wings gave him.

When he retired, he was just as dogged, hard-working and gritty in terms of turing the Wings' Alumni Association into a smoothly-running 21st century charity-helping machine, and when he was diagnosed with leukemia, the self-depreciating jokes about weight loss were soon followed with attempts to expand bone marrow registries via simple cotton-swabbing of people's cheeks. When he kicked cancer for the first time, he was thrilled. When it came back, he dealt with it. When a bone marrow transplant didn't take and he was stuck at the University of Michigan hospital with no immune system, he managed to keep cracking jokes...

But cancer finds a way...

We know that Burr fell down stairs at his home and suffered a brain injury. We don't know the circumstances that led to what happened, and perhaps we never will. What we know is that he's gone far too soon.

The stats read like this, from the Detroit News's Rod Beard...

Shawn Burr, a former left wing for the Detroit Red Wings, died Monday night at age 47.

Burr played 16 seasons in the NHL, including 11 years for the Red Wings, from 1984-95. He also played three total seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning (1995-97, ’99-’00) and two with the San Jose Sharks (’97-‘99)

Born in Sarnia, Ontario, Burr was a first-round pick by the Red Wings, selected seventh overall in the 1984 draft.

He played nine games in his rookie season at age 18 and five games the following season before playing full time in 1986-87, when he had 47 points (22 goals and 25 assists). Burr had a career-best 56 points (24 goals and 32 assists) in 1988-89. He finished his career with 440 points (181 goals and 259 assists).

In 2011, Burr was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was cancer-free after chemotherapy treatments. The following year, the leukemia returned.

And Red Wings VP Jimmy Devellano spoke with both MLive's Brendan Savage...

Jimmy Devellano, who was owner Mike Ilitch's first general manager after he bought the Red Wings, used the seventh overall pick in the 1984 NHL entry draft to take Burr out of Kitchener of the OHL.

They stayed in touch after Burr was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1995 and Devellano would call Burr from time to time to offer encouragement when he was battling cancer.

"On behalf of the Detroit Red Wings, we're very saddened by the news," said Devellano, now a senior vice president with the Red Wings. "He was our first pick in my second draft, when we were trying to get to the Detroit Red Wings from the Dead Wings. He was a good guy, a pretty good player for us. Always an upbeat kid, good sense of humor. He was a good human being. He was too young.''

After being drafted by the Red Wings in 1984, Burr scored 84 goals during his final two junior seasons. That included 60 in 1985-86, when he had 127 points. He never came close to producing those kinds of numbers with the Red Wings but he did score at least 20 goals three times while bagging a career-high 24 in 1989-90, when he had a career-high 56 points.

"He was a big scorer in junior hockey with Kitchener," Devellano said. "I was hoping that might translate to the NHL. He became more of a checker, but with some ability to score and a pain to play against. He played hard, was a good part of teams that went to the final four with Jacques (Demers, in 1987 and '88). I remember the overtime goal he scored for us against Chicago in the playoffs," which clinched the four-game sweep in first round in 1987.

Burr, who played all of parts of 11 seasons in Detroit, spent 16 years in the NHL before finishing his career in 1999-00, when he played for Tampa Bay as well as the Detroit Vipers and Manitoba Moose of the IHL.

And the Macomb Daily's Chuck Pleiness about Burr's passing...

Burr, a resident of St. Clair County, founded the Shawn Burr Foundation which served charities in St. Clair County. It most recently was supporting blood cancer research.

The Wings drafted Burr in the first round, seventh overall, in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. He played 16 seasons in the NHL, 11 of which were with Detroit. He also played with Tampa Bay and San Jose.

Burr, who scored an astonishing 60 goals in his final season with Kitchener before joining the Wings, had his best season with the Wings in 1989-90, scoring 24 goals and assisting on 32 in 76 games.

“He was a big scorer with Kitchener,” Devellano said. “I was hoping that might translate to the NHL.”

However, Burr, who totaled 181 goals and 259 assists in 878 games, was more of a grinder during his time in the league.

“He had the ability to score and was a pain to play against,” Devellano said. “He played hard. He was a good, motivated and fun-loving kid. He turned out to be a pretty good NHL player.

“He had a long career and was a bona fide NHL player,” Devellano continued. “He was a good, solid player who was a good Red Wing, a good guy, brought a little life to the team. I’m very, very saddened by this news.”

And then the stories from former teammates and even the media came pouring in.

The Free Press's George Sipple and Helene St. James spoke with Chris Osgood and Kris Draper, as well as Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill and former Free Press sportswriter Keith Gave, about Burr...

“If you were in the same room with him, you knew you were going to laugh and you knew it wasn’t going to be quiet,” Draper said. “He was definitely a guy that had a lot to say, talked a lot, had some unreal one-liners. Very quick, very witty. Just a great guy to be around. I probably saw him more in our golf tournaments than I did playing with him. It’s a big loss for the hockey community. The sad thing is we all know he was sick and he was battling cancer. From the sounds of it, it was something that wasn’t related to the cancer that he was fighting.”

Chris Osgood overlapped with Burr during Burr's last seasons with the Wings and remembers a guy who never stopped talking - or laughing.

"He was a funny guy, a nonstop talker, always had a trick to play," Osgood said. "My first game as a rookie, he put my name upside down on my jersey. He was the guy in the ‘90s who kept everybody else relaxed. He did the dirty work for the team on the ice and then kept the guys relaxed in the dressing room."

...

He returned to the Detroit area to live, joining the Wings' alumni association. The quality of the games may have changed, but Burr's personality hadn't.

"I know some of the other guys on the alumni team, they told me he'd sit in the dressing room and talk non-stop," Osgood said. "Then he'd take a shift on the ice, and when he was done with it, talk again. He had a lot, a lot of energy. He always had something going on."

...

“It’s devastating news to me,” Gave said. “Shawn Burr was not only a fun guy to watch play hockey, but he was one of the finest people I ever met. In the dressing room he made us laugh and he made us cry. He was the kid in the corner in tears at the end of every season when they got knocked out of the playoffs. Most of all, he made the game fun for everybody. He shared the experiences with everybody. His teammates tolerated him because he talked to so much and opponents hated him. He was a Claude Lemiuex-type. In the end, probably talked his way out of Detroit. He talked too much for Scotty Bowman’s liking. He always had a crowd of media around him, because he talked and he spoke well. I would compare him a little bit to Kris Draper. He was one of those guys you gravitated to.”

And this is really important:

Donations or memorials can be made to the Shawn Burr Foundation, P.O. Box 610812, Port Huron, MI 48061.

The link goes to the Shawn Burr Foundation's website,

Fox Sports Detroit's Art Regner noted that Burr was something of a walking contradiction who had remarkable chemistry with--of all people--Sergei Fedorov...

Surprisingly Burr was a bit of a loner.  His gregarious personality rubbed many of his teammates the wrong way.  He couldn’t help himself. Shawn loved people and he loved to talk. His nonstop talking was his way of calming himself before a game.  Most players would become reflective before they played, Shawn was the opposite - a total chatterbox.

If Burr did have a close friend on the Red Wings, it was Sergei Fedorov.  The pair were thrown together after Sergei had defected.  Fedorov was staying with a Red Wings official who contacted Burr.

“I get this call and I’m told, Hey Shawn, I have this Russian kid staying at my house and he hasn’t done anything,” Burr told me several years ago.  “So I said, I’m going on my boat, I’ll take him out. Sergei shows up and he has a Speedo on. Here’s me not a body of a Greek God and this kid’s got a body of a Greek God and he has a Speedo on.  I said, Sergei not a chance.  I gave him a pair of watermelon boxers that went down to his knees.” 

They developed a fast friendship and Burr was always amazed that Fedorov seemed immune to becoming fat. 

“There was a time when all he could say was, “milk, steak,” Burr said.  “He would drink milk and eat steak.  That’s all he ever did.  I could never figure it out. Here’s me eating all this lean meat and Sergei would have steak with sour cream on it and a baked potato loaded with butter and sour cream.  He was chiseled out of steel and I was chiseled out of marshmallow.”

That was Shawn Burr, a man that saw the world in his own unique perspective.  I never saw him angry, it just wasn’t in him.

The Oakland Press's Pat Caputo and Ken Kal shared their recollections of Burr in an article penned for 97.1 the Ticket...

97.1 The Ticket’s Pat Caputo knew Burr professionally for years saying, “Although he didn’t play on a Stanley Cup championship team, Burr, the organization’s first-round draft in pick 1984, was a big part of the Red Wings’ turnaround during the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

Nicknamed “Skippy,” Caputo said Burr was a genuinely good person, who was not only loved by Red Wings’ fans, but respected in every sense.

WWJ spoke with Ken Kal, play-by-play announcer with the Detroit Red Wings: “You know he did a lot for charity, he had a golf outing each and every year – raised a lot of money for charity. But he was really proud to be a member of the Red Wings Alumni Association so that’s what I remember most about Shawn.”

During his career he scored 181 goals and tallied 259 assists. His most memorable season with the Red Wings was 1989-90 when he scored 56 points in 76 games.

In 2007, he was elected president of the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association and was active in raising money for children’s charities in Michigan.

And Caputo penned "three reasons" why he feels that Shawn Burr was, in his own way, a Red Wings "great"...

1. Although he didn’t play on a Stanley Cup championship team, Burr, the organization’s first-round draft in pick 1984, was a big part of the Red Wings’ turnaround during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

2. Burr was a solid two-way player, who was also very tough.

3. Nicknamed “Skippy,” Burr was a genuinely good person, who was not only loved by Red Wings’ fans, but respected in every sense. He will be missed.

Fox 2's Jennifer Hammond shared her recollections of Burr...

I can't remember the last time I saw Shawn Burr or even the last time I spoke to him, but that's not important right now. What is important is that I will never forget the way he made me feel every time I saw him.

Maybe you knew the former Wings forward personally, or maybe you just felt like you did. That was the greatest gift of this jovial, kid at heart called "Bursie". He made everyone feel like they were his best friend. Always cracking jokes, he was one of the most self-deprecating and enchanting people I've ever covered, let alone met.

His unforgettable voice still rings in my head at this very moment. "Hey Hammer," he would call, and then add some ridiculous, smart ass comment that would leave me searching for a retort. Of course, I could never compete with his wisecracking nature, nor his ability to laugh at his own jokes or personal circumstance, even in the face of cancer.

My fondest memory will forever be the time I spent several early mornings at the Burr home as he cooked breakfast for his kids and shuttled them to school several years ago. I can't even remember what the crux of the story was, other than a former athlete who was still enjoying life as he transitioned to the real world, but that time with him was priceless, and even more cherished as his family, friends and fans mourn a man who was so much more than a hockey player. He was a genuine good guy, and I will miss seeing his smiling face.

And Mitch Albom returned to the sporting realm for a moment to remember his friend (the Free Press posted a 22-image photo gallery of Burr's tenure with the Wings, too):

His teammates adored him. They called him Burrzie or Skippy or even just Shawn, because he was one of a kind. How many other guys dye their hair the team colors because they can’t grow a playoff beard? How many players sweat so profusely they lose 12 pounds in a single game? How many men roomed with a young Sergei Fedorov and tried to teach him English by showing him cartoons, until one day Sergei kept saying, “I need love ... I need love” and Shawn said, “I can’t help you with that” — until Fedorov pointed to a pair of gloves.

Dead? He can’t be dead.

Stop the laughter.

He leaves behind a wife, Amanda, two daughters, loving family members, countless fans and stunned former teammates, who’d been rooting for him to pull through. He’d been president of the Wings Alumni Association, raised all kinds of money for charity, never said no to an autograph and left a barrel full of quotes.

Like his solution to the women-in-the-locker-room issue: “I think we should all take our clothes off.”

Or a recent wisecrack when confined to a cancer wing of a hospital: “Hey, in this ward I’ve got more hair than anybody.”

He had a boy’s face and a boy’s haircut and he lived every minute, but in life, as in hockey, sometimes you don’t get enough minutes. I learned the news an hour ago, and as I sat down to write, I felt like melted ice.

Stop the laughter. Shawn Burr is gone. He was a light, but that light is out. I know no one lives forever. But this just feels unfair.

I think that Ayron from the Wings' game night productions (and social media) staff put it best:

My dad tried for years and years to convince a weird little kid who thought that sports were barbaric and a waste of time--when he was all of 5--to be a sports fan.

The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, golf, college football, a Wings game in 1987, you name it, dad took me to all sorts of events. I wouldn't budge. He and the mom decided that I would play soccer to learn how to play a team sport, and I loved playing, but I had absolutely no athletic ability, so I made room for people.

When my friend Joe Kim started talking about this great hockey player called Sergei Fedorov and showed me some hockey cards just after the Wings lost to the Blues in the first round of the 91 playoffs, I was intrigued. I thought that the players looked graceful. I was excited. So I asked my dad to take me to a Wings game.

He took me to an exhibition game between Detroit and Toronto on September 22nd, 1991, and the Wings won 4-3 in overtime, with Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert and Martin Lapointe scoring, and that was that. I took to the game like a fish to water, and while my dad was a basketball and football guy, he embraced the game with me because he could see that I loved it.

But I knew I would be no Sergei Fedorov. I was a Shawn Burr-type player as soon as I started playing street hockey, a gritty and downright mean space-maker who was eventually banished to the net because my friends and classmates grew tired of the welts and bruises I left them with (so as it turns out, I can proudly say that my mom, a first generation Korean-American and my cousin Dan taught me how to play hockey and how to play goal as one of the last of the stand-up dinosaurs)

I didn't make it through my first NHL season as a fan or my first year playing on the tennis courts opposite Divine Child High School before my father passed away from a sudden heart attack, but he was a wonderful father, a fantastically charismatic and brilliant but also admittedly flawed and imperfect man who owned his mistakes and self-depreciatingly did as best he could to either make jokes or be the butt of them to ease people through hard times. He was full of life and full of honesty and kindness.

My dad was 44 when he died, but as time's passed, I've realized that I was incredibly lucky to have him for 14 years. He lived life to his fullest, I know he loved me because he told me so every day, and he taught me that being a man means making mistakes and learning from them as much as anything else.

I hope that one day in the future, people might say something similar about the time Wings fans of all kinds had with Shawn Burr, because he was a man who squeezed every ounce out of life while readily admitting that he was making it up as he went along like the rest of us, especially when he faced his own mortality.

Farewell and Godspeed, Skippy.

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Comments

Bugsy's avatar

But I knew I would be no Sergei Fedorov. I was a Shawn Burr-type player as soon as I started playing street hockey, a gritty and downright mean space-maker who was eventually banished to the net because my friends and classmates grew tired of the welts and bruises I left them with (so as it turns out, I can proudly say that my mom, a first generation Korean-American and my cousin Dan taught me how to play hockey and how to play goal as one of the last of the stand-up dinosaurs)

1. I almost cried reading this story (not that there’s anything wrong with that), with how personal you made this.
2. South Korea doesn’t have much in hockey (at least yet), so I’m assuming your mom picked up the hockey knowledge here—neat to picture.
3. 6 feet tall/250 # that early? You weren’t a young Bertuzzi, were you? wink
4. My dad was the one who took me to Olympia in the 1970’s. I don’t remember much (I was young), but that and talking to Bryan Watson at a sporting goods store appearance were my early memories (and hearing Bruce Martyn call Reed Larson’s slap shot, with Sid Abel’s commentary). I do remember Burr, liked his play, but I’m a touch older than you on the key memories (again, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

 

Posted by Bugsy on 08/06/13 at 05:21 AM ET

gowings's avatar

“Like his solution to the women-in-the-locker-room issue: “I think we should all take our clothes off.””

Yep, great sense of humor. We need more players/people like him in the world!

RIP

Posted by gowings from MTL on 08/06/13 at 07:50 AM ET

Cwix's avatar

Thanks for sharing, George. A great tribute from a different perspective.

Posted by Cwix from Grand Rapids, now Chicago, IL on 08/06/13 at 09:31 AM ET

RW19's avatar

This is really a depressingly sad day. For some reason those Red Wing teams from 83-90 have a real special place for me and Burr is one of the reasons. They were scrappy, they were fighters, they were nasty. Those hopeless playoff battles against the Oilers ... great times and great heart break.

It’s a funny thing with a player like Shawn Burr, the numbers would tell you he was a just a decent but average NHLer, yet anyone who was into the Wings back then, anyone who saw them rise from brutal to beasts knows the value of guys like Burr.

Along with Probert, Kocur, Gallant,Norwood, Chiasson, Delorme and others, Skippy brought an attitude, and a bitterness back to the Wings. They lost as many as the won in those days, but man they were sure entertaining.

Rest in Peace.

Posted by RW19 on 08/06/13 at 11:36 AM ET

testgrenade's avatar

Shawn Burr was my favorite player as a kid. I got a #11 jersey for Christmas one year and lived in it until my mom “lost” it. Today, I have one autograph hanging on a wall in my office: A Red Wings puck signed by Shawn. I tried to make my hair stick up like his did when I was little. I honestly can’t say exactly why I was such a big fan of his as a kid, I just was. I remember being really upset when Scotty pretty much sent Shawn away. His fight with cancer was something that inspired me to deal with my own life struggles later on. It’s an odd how the lives of complete strangers can impact a life but it happens and it’s why we keep coming back to sports as a way to sort out how we relate to the world. I can’t imagine what his family must be going through but if for some reason any of them might be reading this, know that Shawn’s life had an impact on people like me. A kid who was always a little different, trying to figure out exactly what the world wants from me. RIP Shawn.

Posted by testgrenade on 08/06/13 at 12:17 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.