Perception vs. Reality – The Alex Burrows Story

It is not unusual for a professional athlete to be revered in the city he makes his home in during the season, but hated in most of the rest of the country or continent. In competitive sports, one team always has to win, and one team always has to lose. Teams that win more often than not are usually more hated than teams that lose more often than not (success breeds jealously), and in the past few years we have seen that highlighted with the suddenly successful (and suddenly hated) Canucks.

One player, in particular, has been a lightning rod for criticism over the past three seasons. If back in 2005 you had told me that Alex Burrows would eventually develop into a player as visible and scrutinized in the national media as he is now, I would have called you insane. Coming out of the NHL lockout, Burrows was an undrafted, recently signed ECHL scoring star fresh off a 26-point, 107-PIM rookie season with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

He was earning praise at the time for his tireless work ethic and passion for the game, but Burrows wasn’t expected to become anything more than a solid AHL forward. In a little over three years from his first professional game, he broke the 25-goal mark at the NHL level, finishing with 28 goals in 2007-08. Those attributes that got him noticed during his first practice with the Moose carried him all the way to a regular NHL spot – Burrows wasn’t going to out skate, out hit, or out skill any one on the ice (especially not at the NHL level), but he consistently made sure that he was never, ever outworked.

What do we all love about sports? Lots of things, I’m sure. Sports represent an escape from real life, an alternative reality. They represent a tangible way to compare the very best in the world – the fastest, the strongest, the smartest, and so on. For me, the single most unique and defining attribute about what makes sports so great is the element of unpredictability. The best team doesn’t always win. The highest draft pick doesn’t always turn into the best player. The road to becoming a professional athlete is nonlinear, as we have seen time and time again. It is also another reason as to why many fans were quick to associate with the young, scrappy fourth line winger who earned a full-time roster spot on the Canucks during the second half of the 2005-06 season.

Burrows wasn’t supposed to make it. There were hundreds of young hockey players like him, but bigger, stronger, faster, and perhaps most importantly, drafted. NHL teams view players drafted in a much different light than those not drafted (although this is changing in recent years). It is human nature for a GM to evaluate a player who they decided to draft in a more favourable light compared to the players that were passed over (people tend to view their own decisions favourably – in fact, 80% of people view themselves as above average).

A player who is ignored or passed over multiple times (like Burrows) often never gets another chance. For Burrows it was that one practice with the Moose. He took the opportunity given to him, and he made the most of it. Many players get the same opportunity and do nothing with it. To this day, he has made his career on taking advantage of every opportunity given.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The First Few Years

For years, fans in Vancouver tried to draw up the perfect Sedin line mate. It usually consisted of a big, gritty sniper with a heavy and accurate shot (most importantly, a right-handed shot playing on the right side). We saw the Sedins excel with Anson Carter – not gritty, but big and strong and a positionally sound offensive forward that used his right-handed shot well to open up passing lanes for Daniel and Henrik. Carter’s one season in Vancouver earned him a contract with Columbus, and the Canucks were back to the drawing board. That next season (2006-07), most of the Sedins time on the ice was spent with Taylor Pyatt. Pyatt was big and fairly gritty, but he wasn’t a particularly effective or consistent offensive threat, and he struggled to convert on many of the chances created for him.

Burrows had his worst offensive season that year, scoring only three times in 81 games. That summer, he was challenged by head coach Alain Vigneault before training camp regarding his NHL future:

Alex Burrows doesn’t take his spot in the Vancouver Canucks lineup for granted. He was made aware at the conclusion of last season that his overall performance was considered disappointing and that he had better show some more giddy-up, especially in the offensive zone, if he wanted to stick around for the 2007-08 NHL campaign.

Obviously we like a lot of the things that Alex bring to the table. He’s a feisty player, he gets into other people’s faces, he finishes checks and he block shots, which takes a lot of courage.

So we like a lot of things about his game. But his season last year was below what we anticipated and we made it very clear to him. He is conscious and aware that he needs to have a very solid training camp if he intends to start with us this year.

He responded in a big way in 2007-08, scoring 12 goals and adding a whopping 179 PIM in a full 82- game season. Burrows earned those 179 PIM by building and maintaining a reputation as one of the league’s most hated players. Even after a decent offensive season, he was never really considered anything more than a third or fourth line winger with good hands and a great ability to anger opposing players.

He was carving out a niche as an effective penalty killer too, as from day one he displayed a great understanding of the game in all three zones. Just when Burrows seemed to be settling in as a gritty defensive winger, he would go on to score 89 goals over the next three seasons.

Love of the Game

Hockey players make a lot of money to do something many of us enjoy as a recreational activity. Some players like it more than others, and Burrows is quite obviously one of those. His passion and love for the game is obvious – he leads drills in practice, and in pre-game warm ups. He has the rare but important ability to relate to everyone on the team, from the (at times) mercurial Roberto Luongo to the (often) grumpy Ryan Kesler. He does the post-win high fives with each and every team mate. He was the closest on the team with the late Luc Bourdon, and with his famous bow-and-arrow goal celebration, Burrows took it on himself to ensure Bourdon’s memory lives on.

His passion for the game pushed him to stick it out in the ECHL long after most other players would have hung their skates up. Burrows played for the likes of the Greenville Grrrowl (yes, there were three r’s in the team name) and the Baton Rouge Kingfish. He wasn’t trying to build a career on playing for obscure teams – his passion for hockey carried him to places where hockey was barely on the radar. The love of hockey also drove him to become one of the best ball hockey players on the planet.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

It is also a significant reason as to why he has taken significant pay cuts on both of his NHL contracts. As a rookie, Burrows signed a unique three-year deal at the league minimum. He was guaranteed an NHL salary (the contract was one-way, which meant he would earn the same money even if he was sent down to the farm), but he also would be severely underpaid if he continued to progress at the NHL level. In the last year of his deal, he ended up getting paid only $500,000 to score 28 goals. For his next contract, he signed a four-year contract worth a grand total of $8 million. Burrows is and will continue to be one of the best bargains in the league through 2012-13.

In the process, he has become one of the best wingers in the entire NHL, but, as we’ve seen, playing a passionate brand of game in a high profile market has its costs.

Public Enemy

Thanks to increased visibility with Vancouver’s success, Burrows has rocketed up many “most hated” lists around the league. His reputation as an agitator or diver is not unearned. Drawing penalties is one of the most important facets to Vancouver’s success, as they have had the league’s most dangerous power play for over two years. There are several successful NHL players who are notoriously quick to go down – Taylor Hall, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Derek Roy, and Jordin Tootoo, to name a few.

There have been a handful of specific incidences which have vaulted Burrows into the negative light.

  1. Auger-gate, which saw Burrows publically call out a league official (referee Stephane Auger). He received support from the Canucks, but was blasted league wide, especially from lifelong referee and CBC media personality Ron McLean. The McLean/Burrows storyline is one that has received enough attention, but it unfortunately created a public perception of Burrows that is wrong.
  2. The flying elbow to the head of JP Dumont. Burrows expressed remorse for this hit, and in the next game against Nashville he took his lumps for it (literally). So much for never answering the bell.
  3. The hair pull heard ‘round the world. During one of the numerous Vancouver/Chicago line brawls, Burrows became engaged in a wrestling match with Duncan Keith. Burrows grabbed Keith’s hair, while Keith fish-ooked Burrows by sticking his finger in his mouth. Neither player was proud of what he did (I don’t think, at least), but the reputation Burrows was beginning to build league wide gained momentum.  
  4. The Patrice Bergeron biting incident. Again, like the McLean/ Burrows one-sided war of words, this event has received its fair share of coverage. Burrows did himself no favours by biting Bergeron’s finger during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He was never suspended for the incident, but his guilt was obvious.

Why am I highlighting these incidences? Is it to show why so many people dislike Burrows outside of Vancouver? Is it to show how his reputation has been created by the media? No, and partly. There have been other minor incidences along the way, but for a player who is so uniquely hated, Burrows really hasn’t done all that much. He’s never been suspended, either.

The New Role

Back to that vacancy on the right side with the Sedin twins. As the search continued for the perfect sniper to pair with the two play makers, the team decided to give Burrows, a natural left wing, a shot there. He wasn’t expected to last long, as he wasn’t that big, fast, and his shot was nothing to write home about (and he was going to be playing out of position). However, he had other attributes that allowed him to achieve instant success with the Sedins – most notably an incredible ability to win puck battles and a great sense of positioning in the offensive zone.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Henrik Sedin sums up Burrows’ contributions well:

He brings a lot to the line. I think people in the past thought we need a big body that goes to the net and stands there. But he’s good in the forecheck. He turns a lot of pucks over for us. He knows where to go. "He’s involved in our game and he finds those spots where he can get shots away. He’s done a great job for us and we’re excited to play with him.

In the last three and a half seasons, Burrows has scored 103 regular season goals (through December 27th, 2011). After receiving some feedback from GM Mike Gillis on changing his game (less time in the penalty box, more time on the ice), Burrows responded. After recording 179 PIM in 2007-08, his subsequent PIM totals have been 150, 121, 77, and 58 (projected), respectively.

Like the Sedins, he seems to be adding a new element to his game each season. Early on in his career, he became a successful penalty killer and defensive forward before the offense arrived. He started scoring goals with more frequency, thanks to great hands honed in ball hockey. His patented breakaway move, a wrist shot fake to a backhand to the top corner, is both predictable and nearly impossible for opposing goaltenders to stop.

Everyone knows what is coming…. Except Toskala: 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In the last few years, he has become much stronger on his skates. Off the ice, he added some muscle mass to be able to win more puck battles. He came into the NHL weighing around 180 pounds, and he is now between 195 and 200. The added muscle has helped him fight off defenders better, which in turn allows him get the puck to the Sedins on a more frequent basis). He became a faster skater, too. The hands were always there, but he was now able to support them with more speed and balance.

Through the first few months of the 2011-12 season, and Burrows appears to have added another dimension – that of a playmaker. He has shown more poise and patience with the puck than he has at any other time in his NHL career. The Sedins have obviously rubbed off on him, as he plays so much like one now. He can create separation both off of the rush and once set up in the offensive zone. He is so good at isolating opposing defensemen with subtle positioning and passing. And unlike the Sedins, he has an elite ability to get his stick on loose pucks and point shots with great regularity. He has morphed from a decent checking line winger into a legitimate top-six winger in three years.

His development into a reliable, consistent offensive threat has been even more impressive when considering a few other factors. Burrows still plays a significant role on the penalty kill .He has only started to see a regular shift on the power play this season. In 2010-11, he was the only player in the league with at least 25 goals to have scored less than than three of them on the man advantage (he scored one power play goal). The season before, only four of his 25 goals came on the power play. So much of offensive production in the NHL is tied to power play ice time (more time with the man advantage means more points, pretty simply) – it isn’t absurd to project a 40-goal season for Burrows in 2009-10 if he sees even a little bit of power play time.

Claude Lemieux 2 point 0.

With the emerging popularity of statistics in sports (thanks in large part to Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball), once intangible elements have become measurable. In some cases, however (like a player’s ability to be clutch), the answer remains unclear. Whatever part of the clutch spectrum you fall on – if you believe certain players are predisposed to elevating their game at important times, or if you believe it is completely random, it is impossible to ignore the importance of several goals Burrows has scored.

He scored the series clinching goal against St. Louis in 2009, earning Vancouver’s first second round birth in six years. His regular season goal against Carolina a few years ago ended one of the worst losing skids in team history. During Luc Bourdon’s tribute game to open the 2008 season, Burrows scored twice. He scored the overtime goal in game two of the Stanley Cup Final, on a play that essentially sums his career up. He chipped the puck in deep, out worked the opposing defender (no small feat in this case, as it was Zdeno Chara), and made a play that was only available only through hard work.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

One of the biggest regular season goals in the past 10 years – completely turned the season around: 

Last but not least, he scored arguably the most important goal in team history, capping the seven game rollercoaster ride against Chicago this past spring. Speculating what would have happened if Chicago had won that series is something most Canuck fans were trying to avoid (and likely found impossible after Jonathan Toews scored late in regulation time to tie the game). Kevin Bieksa’s goal to get the team into the Final was also monumental, as was Greg Adams’ goal back in 1994 that accomplished the same thing. However, given the magnitude of everything that was going on – a potentially epic collapse along with finally slaying the Chicago dragon, Burrows’ goal stands at the top.

“Campoli, trying to clear it, Burrows shoots….” Has replaced “Brown a long pass to Pavel Bure, in the clear… right in….” as the best call in Canucks history. 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

A Fair Shake

At the end of the day, I am not trying to convince anyone to change their view on Burrows. To quote Dr. Bertuzzi, “it is what it is.” Burrows is an annoying player to play against on the ice, and he has done a few things in his NHL career that are not really indicative of the kind of player he is today. As I alluded to earlier, he represents so much of what makes sports unique – his story truly is one-of-a-kind. There isn’t another Burrows out there, but he has given hope to so many players toiling away in the minor leagues. He has taken advantage of every single opportunity thrown his way, after receiving none after his junior career wrapped up. He has developed from an AHL walk on, to an AHL star, to an NHL depth player, to one of the best pests in the game, to an elite penalty killer, to a top line scorer, and now into one of the best wingers in the league.

He loves the game of hockey, which is obvious to see. He has taken two significant pay cuts in a time when so many professional athletes follow the money. At the end of the day, he is still getting $2 million to play hockey, but considering what he could/should be getting, Vancouver management and fans should be counting their lucky stars Burrows values success and familiarity over money. If you take one thing away from this piece, I hope it is that there is a lot more to Burrows than what the media has told and continues to tell us. He’s a great ambassador for the city, for the game, and for sports in general. With a lot of hard work and even a small opportunity, anything really is possible.

  • John Cullen

    Great article Jeff. I also think Burrows brings an energy to the Sedin line they sometimes lack. I think the Sedins at times can be almost TOO professional, and Burrows helps them be a little bit more involved emotionally, especially during the regular season grind.

  • John Cullen

    Thanks for the feedback. Great point as well, John. Burrows’ importance to that line, and to the team, cannot be understated. If the Sedins are the offensive leaders and Kesler is the engine, Burrows could be the pulse.

  • John Cullen

    Great article, although I’d add to the beginning that, yes, sports are unpredictable to some extent, but the better teams are more likely to win, and the higher drafts are more likely to be good nhl players.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about with Burrows, and why he went undrafted. Gabe Desjardins once wrote an article about the fact that second-tier players with equivalent results to OHL and WHL peers tend to get drafted less from the Q. I don’t remember exactly how he put it, but after the first round or two, players from the Q are less likely to be drafted (maybe it was French players more generally), even if they put up equivalent results. Maybe that’s what prevented Burrows from going in a 3rd or 4th round.

    On his salary. Another misunderstanding with Burrows is how genuinely humble he is. He remembers how he got there.

    • John Cullen

      Most of the reason for that is the Q is generally an easier league to put up points in. The emphasis on the Q is on offensive, rather than defensive play, generally speaking.

      In any given year, if you look at the top scorers across leagues, generally the Q’s leading scorer will have the most points, and the top 10 especially will combine for more points than the other leagues.

      It doesn’t happen every year(for example, the WHL last year had more points scored among the top ten than usual and finished ahead of the Q), but usually that’s the case.

      • JOFA

        @ John

        Thanks. I should have been more clear. Gabe Desjardins has a way to compare across leagues (and time periods) using his usual statistical system. I found the article:

        Now, in this particular article, he doesn’t mention NHL equivalency, but that’s what he usually uses to compare across leagues, but he does normalize for era. So it seems he just goes by points in their draft years. If I’m not mistaken, Burrows would have been eligible in 2000/1 and 2001/2, years that he scored 30 and 70 points respectively. Esp. that latter year, Burrows fits exactly into the second-tier group about which Desjardins writes: “once we’re not talking about future stars, QMJHL players are much less likely to get drafted – 20%.”

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a common sense in the NHL about French players (like “enigmatic” Russian players now) that, after the obvious stars, there’s something that makes them less likely to succeed.

        Of course, this doesn’t change anything you wrote. But I’ve always been curious if this affected his chances of being drafted, and then set him on that long route you describe.

  • John Cullen

    I am really happy to see more and more articles and recognition of burrows. Unfortunately, it will always only be in this market and even then, a lot of them still only paints him as a player riding shot guns to the Sedins.

    Its hard to argue against that as the Sedins are definitely elite players and are the ones carrying that line but I would definitely argue that Burrows is a catalyst to getting that line to be as dominate as they are.

    For the longest time, people think the Sedins needed a right handed power forward but it turns out that a left handed cycling player is the easiest for them to play with. The Sedins have played their whole career developing plays and chemistry with each other who are smaller playmaking left handed players, this is why Burrows fits like a glove. They don’t need new plays to setup a right handed guy, they just need the same plays they have done for the last decade and teach it to burrow 🙂

    The stats are also misleading as Burrows gets points without the Sedins and the Sedins gets points on the PP without Burrows as well. But 5 on 5 play, I feel that Burrows is as important to the “domination” of that line as are the Sedins.

  • JOFA

    Great article angus. Burrows is testament to what a player can do if you have unmatched work ethic and passion for the game. Above everything that he’s accomplished on the ice, it is the respects that I have seen him display towards his late friend and teammate Luc Bordon that make me truly admire him as a person.

  • JOFA

    Way to go Jeff! It’s unfortunate how a great person and player like Burrows has been turned into a villain by the media. He should be celebrated rather than criticized. Hopefully this article can change some people’s POV!

  • JOFA

    Well written piece no doubt, but none of this changes my perception of Burrows being a pest/agitator/punk/rat/s**thead.

    Good player, yes, but hated for a reason. That’s reality.
    Every team needs/wants those types of players tho.

  • JOFA

    Great read! As a few others have mentioned, what I love about the most about Burr is what a genuinely wonderful human being he seems to be and the way he treats his fans.
    I’ve been lucky enough to meet him on numerous occasions; he has stopped to sign autographs and pose for photos for everyone who wanted one every single time (I mean EVERY single time), and greets everyone with a “Hey, how are you?” The rest of the Canucks are also wonderful in person, but none so accommodating and genuine as Burr.

  • JOFA

    Thanks for the feedback! I really enjoyed writing this piece, and having met Alex, I can concur that he is a genuinely great human being with an unrivaled passion for the game of hockey.