Connor Gaarder knows his grandfather as just that - his grandfather.
NFL fans know Jerry Burns as a coaching legend.
After all, Burns retired from coaching in 1991 - the year Gaarder, a forward with the North Iowa Outlaws, was born.
“I never saw any of the games that he coached, but I see him all the time on the ‘Best Damn Sports Show Period’ when they show some of his press conferences and some of the crazy things he said,” Gaarder said. “It’s pretty cool to have him as my grandfather, though; pretty unique really. I talk to my grandfather a lot.
“I did play football when I was younger, but I had a couple ankle injuries that ended that. I’ve always played hockey, though.”
Burns coached in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls and later was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator for 18 years before being the Vikings’ head coach for six seasons.
He even has ties to Iowa as he coached the University of Iowa in the early 1960s.
“I don’t know how much Connor gets asked about his grandfather,” North Iowa head coach Garrett Strot said. “I didn’t even know about it until I met his mother. I don’t think too many guys on the team know who Jerry Burns is, but I know it’s a name people here in Iowa know for sure.”
With the Outlaws, though, Gaarder is looking to make a name for himself. Strot said last season when he would scout Gaarder while he was playing high school hockey in Minnesota, Gaarder “hemmed and hawed” that he wanted North Iowa to tender him.
He got the tender and signed it at the end of last season.
“I had a buddy that I played in Edina (Minn.) with for two seasons (Matt Leer, now at Babson College) that played here in North Iowa,” noted Gaarder. “He said it was a lot of fun and the guys were great and that I would think the same thing. He was right; I’m having a lot of fun this season.”
While Leer has advanced to college hockey, Gaarder is hoping he can follow that same path and that’s the main reason he chose the NAHL as his catalyst to the next level.
“The NAHL is a great league,” the 5-foot-10, 183-pound Gaarder said. “Some people might think it’s underrated, but those people don’t know this league. I had to adjust at first coming out of high school, but I’m getting comfortable and am keeping up with the pace.
“I talked to a couple schools while I was in high school, and if I continue to play hard, I feel pretty confident I’ll hear from a couple more.”
“When I saw him at Edina High School, I noticed his work ethic right away and his overall game,” noted Strot. “He’s adjusted very well and has his legs under him. To get to college, though, I think it will be a two-year situation for Connor, but I do feel he will be a solid D-I player down the road.”
And while Gaarder has just a handful of points thus far, Strot made note that points are the secondary asset to his game. In fact, Strot wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way.
“His play away from the puck is outstanding,” said Strot. “He’s excellent on his defensive zone coverage, backchecking and the forecheck. He’s a very smart player at both ends of the ice.”
“That’s how I’ve always been taught to play - going all-out on the backcheck and the forecheck,” Gaarder said. “I take pride in the way I play.”
Moving away from his comfort zone in Edina may have been tough at first, but in order to succeed in hockey and more importantly, life, Gaarder felt it was something he had to do.
He does miss home, however.
“It’s a great experience being on my own,” Gaarder admitted. “My mom always used to make me a pre-game meal back home and I don’t get that now from her, but being away from home and on my own, it kind of makes you grow up faster and I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. Just a great experience all the way around.”
And making his grandfather proud every step of the way.