While playing junior hockey with the Toronto Marlboros, Charlie Burns suffered a fractured skull that almost ended his career. But he underwent surgery to have a metal plate inserted in his head and made a courageous comeback, wearing a heavily padded helmet in all games and practices during his professional hockey career until he was 38.
Burns played at the 1958 World Championships with the Whitby Dunlops and finished the tournament with three goals and seven points in seven games and was selected the outstanding forward. The Dunlops won all seven of their games, outscoring the opposition by a total of 82-6.
The next season, Burns was signed by the Detroit Red Wings and he played in the Motor City for one season before being claimed by the Boston Bruins in the 1959 Intra-League Draft. He became an outstanding utility man with the Bruins. Bruins coach Phil Watson used him to shadow the league's greatest stars Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich. Watson said Burns was a good man for the job because he was an excellent skater and didn't let anything get under his skin.
Toronto coach Punch Imlach said that from that point on the Leafs were going to treat Burns the same as any other player. The intimation was that Toronto players had been taking it easy on him because of the head injury he'd suffered. In the same season, Burns was caught with his head down by Chicago defenseman Pierre Pilote and wound up in the hospital with a mild concussion suffered when his head struck the ice. But Milt Schmidt, the Boston coach at that time, conceded after the game that it was a clean hit.
When the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season, Burns was playing with the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League and his NHL rights were transferred to the Oakland Seals after the San Francisco owners were granted an NHL franchise. He later played with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota North Stars. Always known more for his excellent defensive skills, he collected 13 goals and 51 points in his best NHL season, for Pittsburgh, in 1968-69.
If he had played longer in the post-expansion era, Burns certainly would have been a candidate for nomination as the NHL's best defensive forward. But the Frank J. Selke Trophy wasn't awarded for the first time until 1978, five years after he'd played his last NHL game.