Of all the athletes I have covered, Shawn Burr was a stand-alone.
Burr, 47, died Monday night in a Detroit area hospital from brain trauma suffered after he fell down a flight of stairs at his home.
For the past three years, Burr battled acute myeloid leukemia (a bone marrow cancer) with wit and grace. Burr’s rhyming Facebook posts, which chronicled his bout with the disease, were funny, inspirational and all Shawn.
A first round pick of the Red Wings — seventh overall in the 1984 NHL Draft — Burr’s NHL career spanned 878 games with the Wings, Lightning and Sharks. He notched 440 points with 181 goals, 259 assists and 1,069 penalty minutes.
Burr would always get upset with me because I would tease him that unlike other athletes who detested speaking to the media, he was the exception. He relished being quoted.
After every game, Shawn was there in full uniform, skates still on, waiting to answer every question fired his way.
Nobody told a story like Shawn Burr.
One of my favorites was about Jacques Demers.
Demers was Burr’s favorite coach because Jacques played him and was good to his role players.
“Jacques was a motivator,” Burr told me several years ago. “He always had someone who was the X’s and O’s guy; he knew when to push buttons. Whether you won a face-off or blocked a shot, Jacques would acknowledge it.”
“We were playing Edmonton in the playoffs, he comes in before the game and says, ‘Guys, the game tonight, the biggest game we play as a team. The boys, they cannot play this game. You see we need the mens to show up. The boys, you cannot play against this Edmonton Oiler team. The boys, you stay at home. We need the mens to play. Go get ‘em, boys!’
“We just died laughing, the way Jacques butchered the language.”
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 who saw the world in his own unique perspective. I never saw him angry; it just wasn’t in him.
What I did see was a man that loved being alive. Whether he was playing hockey, being with his family, hanging with fans or the Red Wing alumni, Shawn Burr embraced it all.
“On behalf of the Detroit Red Wings, we’re very saddened by the news,” Red Wings senior vice president, Jimmy Devellano said. “Shawn was a friend of mine. I liked him very much, drafted him in the first round in ’84. He played a long time for us. I remember the overtime goal he scored for us against Chicago in the playoffs.”
“I kept in touch with him after he left Detroit. He was a good, motivated kid, fun-loving. Turned out to be a pretty good NHL player.”
Burr rarely became sentimental when we talked, except for one time when he told me his greatest thrill was skating onto the Joe Louis Arena ice and seeing his wife and parents in the stands. His parents never missed a game.