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Sharks, Soldiers & suite seats

​Burns poses for photos with Sgt. 1st Class Wade Scott’s family in the Sharks locker room following the game March 6. Burns has purchased a luxury suite at all Sharks home games for service members and their families. (Photo by Capt. Will Martin)

5/8/2014
Capt. Will Martin, California Military Department Public Affairs

​Ask the San Jose faithful this night, and they’ll tell you Brent Burns is a hero. But even with two goals to his credit in the Sharks’ 5-3 win March 6 over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the towering right wing thinks heroes wear another uniform.

Flashing a gaping grin, he works his way around the VIP section outside the Sharks locker room after the win, shaking the hands of California Army National Guardsmen and their families, pausing for every picture as it were his idea. But this is no well-orchestrated publicity junket; this is Burns’ post-game routine after every San Jose home contest.

“I have so much respect for what the Soldiers and their families go through during training and deployment,” Burns said. “There’s risk involved during the whole thing, but they still go for it.”

But Burns doesn’t just want to thank service members; he wants to spoil them.

Since emerging as a National Hockey League star with the Minnesota Wild, Burns and his wife, Susan, have donated generously of their time and finances to the Armed Forces community. In fact, for the past several years, they have purchased a luxury suite for the entire season of home games, first with the Wild and now with the Sharks, inviting local service members, veterans and their families to enjoy the game as their honored guests.

On the night of the March 6 game, Susan hosted Sgt. 1st Class Wade Scott and a dozen of his friends and family, while Brent showed less hospitality to the Penguins on the ice below. Throughout the game Susan engaged each guest with enthusiasm, drawing from them their stories of service and sacrifice. Learning that Scott’s wife, April, has endured three of her husband’s combat tours — including a 2010-11 deployment to Afghanistan, where he suffered multiple gunshot wounds that required several surgeries — Susan appeared awestruck with gratitude.

“To give up your husband [for so long], I should be on my knees thanking you,” Susan told April.

Their husbands actually have a good bit in common. Both grew up in Canada loving and playing hockey. Scott, an operations noncommissioned officer with the 330th Military Police Company in Ontario, Calif., learned to skate on the frozen Bow River in Calgary and played his first hockey on backyard rinks manufactured by his dad when he was only 3.

Burns learned to ply his trade in Canada’s hockey-rich province of Ontario, where he starred before being drafted by the Wild in 2003. Besides sharing a passion for the fastest game on ice, both grew up feeling a strong pull toward military service.

“I also always had a personal interest in joining and serving if hockey didn’t work out for me as a career,” said Burns, who at 6 feet 5 inches and 230 pounds would make an imposing Soldier. “To this day I am still fascinated by the military lifestyle and experience.”

Scott’s choice between hockey and military service was made clear when his family moved to what he called “pre-Gretzky” Southern California at age 13. And while his sons both play organized hockey near Los Angeles with NHL dreams, he found it nearly impossible to keep up the sport. So he eventually turned his attention to the Army, where he honored his wife’s desire to stay rooted in one place and bypassed active duty for the National Guard.

But Scott found an opportunity to merge his love of military and hockey when he met Shane Hudella, a friend he now shares in common with Burns. Hudella, a retired first sergeant with the Minnesota Army National Guard, is the founder of Defending the Blue Line (DTBL). The idea for the nonprofit came about while Hudella was serving full-time with the Guard and worked on community projects involving Burns, then a player for the Wild.

“I did some research, and there wasn’t another program like ours out there,” Hudella said. “So I literally woke up one day shortly after and said, ‘I think I’m going to start a nonprofit.’”

Though Hudella’s initial intent was to secure sports supplies and coordinate camps for Guard families in hockey-mad Minnesota, DTBL grew into a national program that now enlists the charitable service of more than 40 professional athletes. In addition to partnering with hockey benefactors like Burns to support military families, it has given birth to sister programs for Major League Baseball and, soon, the National Football League.

In 2012, DTBL earned accolades from the White House, when it was selected by first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden as a Joining Forces Community Challenge winner for providing thousands of military family members with hockey equipment, camps and NHL tickets.

“I heard about DTBL from a wounded Marine,” Scott said. “Through DTBL, we got grants [for youth hockey programs] while I was deployed and wounded. We in turn send them all our boys’ used hockey gear as they grow out of it so other military kids can use it at no cost.”

On Nov. 13, Hudella arranged for Scott to be the “Hometown Hero” for the Anaheim Ducks annual military appreciation night. There, he led a team of CNG Soldiers that defeated Marine and Air Force teams in a tug-o-war during intermission. Like Burns, however, Scott avoids talk of heroism, despite his victories and selfless service.

Hudella isn’t surprised.

“Just an incredibly humble guy for the sacrifices he has made,” Hudella said. “If I thought of a poster guy for the Army Values, it would be Wade.”

For more about Defending the Blue Line, visit www.defendingtheblueline.org. To learn about the Burns family’s partnership with DTBL, click “Our Team” at the top of the page, then “Players.”

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