Nov 6, 2003
They say when you are passed up in the Western Hockey League’s annual entry draft as a Bantam-aged player, you’ve already been slammed with one major knock against you. Well, four years later, when you’re sent packing from a Tier 2 junior A hockey club well…stick a fork in you because, in the highly competitive world of Canadian junior hockey, you should be, pretty much, done like a cheap microwaved dinner.
Such was the case when present-day 28 year-old Anaheim rookie enforcer, Garrett Burnett, was released after a handful of games with the 1993’94 Trail Smoke Eaters as an 18 year-old defenseman. Just to add some perspective, eighteen is the age of Florida’s Nathan Horton and Pittsburgh’s Patrice Bergeron. While Burnett was being released from tier II Junior, most future professionals were already drafted. At the time, the best advice anyone could have given Burnett was that, perhaps, he should start thinking about life beyond hockey. It’s a good thing he didn’t listen.
Let’s step back to his brief tenure in Trail for just a moment. You must be thinking to yourself, wow, that must have been one heck of a team. Well, not exactly. That particular edition of the Trail Smoke Eaters was a club that produced a despicable ten victories all season. Yes indeed, even Trail’s storied hockey history, and all of its glory, was not enough to propel our hapless squad to victories. In actuality, it only served to magnify just how lousy we truly were. Team management tried everything to motivate us—one time even sending legendary Hall of Fame goaltender, Seth Martin, along with two other Smoke-Eaters from the 1961 World Champion team, down to the dressing room to speak with us. I think we went out that same night and were trounced by more goals than any of us would like to remember.
So why was Burnett released? That doesn’t make sense. After all, he wasn’t some 16 year-old kid trying to skip midget. This was a player who would go on to play in the NHL. The truth, from where I sat in the dressing room, was simply that he hadn’t yet committed to the role that would end up defining his style for the next ten years. He hadn’t made the decision to fight. I can only assume that his release forced him to seek out another way to make his NHL dream possible. Pardon the cliché, but I guess it is true: where there’s a will, there’s a way—for everyone.
Believe it or not, with Burnett’s recent NHL breakthrough, that same God-awful team now boasts two current NHL hockey players. The other is Edmonton’s third year center, Shawn Horcoff, a solid two-way player who has just recently come into his own. Horcoff was, at the time, a scrawny fifteen year-old kid who was more often mistaken for the team’s stick boy rather than it’s leading scorer. By all accounts, Horcoff’s NHL path was set out for him and he was expected to be the guy we’d all read about it the papers ten years later. The name “Garrett Burnett” was the last one we ever thought we’d see.
One common destination—two very different paths.
Burnett’s rise through the ranks has been anything but predictable. It’s also been anything but a cakewalk. His career has had the look of one we’ve seen many times before. The only major difference is that 99.9 % of the time, the ultimate goal of reaching the big time is missed…and missed by a long shot. Burnett has experienced stops at almost every level of minor pro hockey: the Colonial League, the Central League, the ECHL, and the AHL. And just how frequently has Burnett’s mitts decorated the ice? The 1999-00 season saw him rack up an astonishing 506 PIMS in just 58 games with the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American league. In total, he has amassed a formidable 2562 PIMS with 13 different minor pro clubs. That’s a lot of long bus rides holding an ice pack to the meat hooks and melon. A prime example of Burnett’s resolve was displayed in a late-September pre-season contest between the Ducks and the San Jose Sharks. Typically, after loosing a one-sided tilt against a veteran heavyweight, such as, Scott Parker, many enforcers would simply call it a night and settle their losses. Not Garrett Burnett. Before the first period would come to an end, he would challenge Parker for second time—and again, he would lose. Still not satisfied, Burnett challenged Parker a third time in the second period. Would this be ‘lucky number three’ for the rookie hopeful? Unfortunately not. Burnett lost again; however, he proved to his Anaheim teammates that he is unafraid to go to battle under any circumstance.
Horcoff, on the other hand, has enjoyed a much more prosperous ascend to the big leagues. That’s not to say that his journey was a joyride either. Even when one is blessed with the talent that enables him to play junior hockey at the age of 15, he must still dedicate the time and effort to make use of, and further develop, his abilities--especially under the pressures of lofty expectations. Following four highly successful seasons at Michigan State in the NCAA, Horcoff spent a total of 26 games in the AHL before being promoted to the big club for good.
The disparity between these two former teammates could not be more pronounced when you analyze their respective paths. I would imagine that Burnett has been involved in more scraps in one game than Horcoff has in his entire career. Conversely, Horcoff has probably scored more points in one game that Burnett has produced in a full season, practices included!
Dreams can come true and Garrett Burnett has shown us that, at times, even the unlikeliest of characters can surprise us all. If Burnett fails to play one more NHL game from now until the end of his professional hockey career, it won’t take away from the fact that he has truly defied the odds. There is simply no question about it. Best of luck Mr. Burnett; you have proven yourself beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
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