When he took his first shift with the Detroit Red Wings on October 11, 1958, Charlie Burns was instantly an anomaly.
Detroit-born Burns, who died on Friday at the age of 85, was the only among the 108 players in the NHL who originally hailed from the United States. As well, he was the only among the NHL brethren opting to don the added feature of protective headgear.
Like the majority of players with American ties who skated in the NHL during the six-team era, Burns’ hockey-playing acumen benefitted from a move to Canada at a young age.
“I was born in Detroit,” Burns explained to Associated Press in 1958. “But my mother died when I was six months old and my aunt and uncle adopted me and took me to Toronto.
“Of course, I learned to skate at a young age. When I was 15, I was signed by a junior team, the Toronto Marlboros.”
His helmet-wearing decision was the result of a serious injury. While practising with the Marlies, Burns took a tumble into the boards. striking his head. He suffered a double fracture of the skull.
“They put a steel plate in my head and after I recovered, they told me it would be safer to wear a helmet,” Burns said. “It certainly makes me feel secure.”
While players in those days were often the subject of ridicule for wearing a helmet, Burns obviously needed its protection. He also didn’t shy away from making it apparent he wore one. Burns kept his helmet on while posing for the photo that adorns his 1958-59 Topps rookie card.
Determined Checker For Red Wings
With the Red Wings, Burns was working as a center on the team’s checking line between veterans Johnny Wilson and Nick Mickoski. He didn’t draw the attention around Detroit that Red Wings rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond are receiving this season. That being said, the voting saw Burns finishing fourth in Calder Trophy race following the 1958-59 campaign.
He’d play only that one season in Detroit. However, Burns spent 13 seasons in the NHL, also performing for the Boston Bruins, Oakland Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars. His reputation was that of a strong skater and determined checker.
Burns would also garner another place in NHL lore with the North Stars. Named coach of the team during the 1969-70 season, he is the last to serve as a player-coach in league history.
Prior to arriving to the NHL with the Red Wings, Burns won Memorial and Allan Cup titles, as well as a World Championship playing for Canada in 1958.
During his Red Wings tenure, the Russian national team visited Michigan during a North American tour to face a team of U.S. college all-stars coached by Al Renfrew of the Michigan Wolverines. Burns took time to offer some advice to Renfrew on the style of hockey to expect from the powerful Russian squad.