January 14, 2015
Duluth News Tribune
Denfeld players, coaches share memories of former hockey captain
By Louis St. George
For young rink-rats growing up in West Duluth in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Tony Burns was the guy to emulate. A big defenseman with a booming slap shot, Burns was a catalyst on some of the best hockey teams in Duluth Denfeld history.
Born into a hockey family, Burns had a knack for the sport. He polished his game on the outdoor rink at Merritt Park, eventually blossoming into a star for the Hunters. Despite his stature, Burns was more workmanlike than flashy. His teammates loved him, loved being around him — until he was ready to crank one up from the blue line.
Then they scattered.
“From what I hear, at practice a lot of guys didn’t like to be in front of the net when he had the puck back there,” current Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley said. “The shot that he had back there, just a phenomenal slap shot.”
Burns, a 1990 Denfeld graduate living in Forest Lake, Minn., died in his sleep last week. He was 43.
A father of two, Burns worked at R & R Specialties, which, fittingly, services ice arenas and resurfacers. His funeral was Tuesday in White Bear Lake, Minn.
Burns helped the Hunters reach the state tournament in 1988 and 1989. After Burns’ passing Thursday, a video from the 1989 third-place game against International Falls surfaced on Facebook. In it, Burns scores twice, both goals coming on blasts from the right circle. The Broncos goalie hardly flinched as the second one ripped past him.
“He didn’t even move and the puck was in the back of the net,” said 1991 Denfeld graduate Brett Larson, an associate head coach at Ohio State who attended Tuesday’s funeral before driving to Duluth for the Hunters’ game against Hibbing-Chisholm at Heritage Center, where a moment of silence was observed in Burns’ honor.
Larson, who went on to play at Minnesota Duluth, boosted his assist total by constantly looking for Burns on the ice.
“All the guys used to joke, ‘Hey, thank Tony for your scholarship because all you did was pass the puck over to him,’ ” Larson recalled.
Burns was a senior captain during the 1989-90 season for first-year coach Mark Krysiak. Denfeld again had a strong team, losing a heartbreaker to Cloquet in the section playoffs. Krysiak said Burns captained the way he played.
“He wasn’t the most vocal captain I ever had by any means, but when Tony spoke everyone listened,” said Krysiak, who coached the Hunters through 1996.
Krysiak described Burns as laidback and thoughtful off the ice, and “probably the best player I coached” on it.
Regardless of talent, Larson said his friend “never had an air about him.” He underscored that humility with a story about Burns being selected for the world junior team.
“Outside of the Olympics, it’s pretty much the biggest thing you can play in internationally,” Larson said. “You know that a lot of people didn’t even know he played on that. He came home, and most of those kids wear that USA hockey stuff everywhere, but I think he gave all his to his buddies. That’s how he was. He was really, really humble about how good he was.”
After high school, Burns prolonged his playing career, first at St. Cloud State and then professionally, most notably in the East Coast Hockey League. His career ultimately was cut short by injury.
Smalley, himself a 1980 graduate of Denfeld, learned of Burns’ death while the Hunters were headed to Proctor for a game against the Rails. The coach was stunned.
“Tony was an outgoing guy that everybody got along with,” Smalley said. “You just felt good being around him — he made everybody feel good. He was a joy to have as a friend.
“He certainly liked to have fun and enjoy life.”