Ron Burke sat 30 rows above the ice, trying to appear relaxed. Below, the Canadian and U.S. Olympic hockey teams played out the final four minutes of an exhibition game. The Canadians led 5-4, but Team USA was on a power play, peppering the Canadian goaltender—Sean Burke—with hard shots. Ron was in danger of overdosing on vicarious thrills.
Sean, his oldest son, had replaced Andy Moog in goal 10 minutes into the second period—after Team USA had gone ahead 4-2. Feigning indifference might help Ron through this tense time, so he talked about the Blue Jays: "This is not to put down George Bell, but if Tony Fernandez doesn't break his wrist, I think he's—oooh!"
Corey Millen, Team USA's lightning-quick center, had beaten a defender and was skating in on Sean alone. Point-blank, Millen stuffed the puck between the goalie's pads. A skate save. Ron pretended not to notice.
"If Fernandez can stay healthy into the playoffs, he's got to be your MVP, eh? You know. Sean was quite a shortstop. See how he uses his glove hand?—ohh!" It was Millen again, this time penetrating the Canadian four-man shell, bearing down on Burke—30 feet, 20, 15.... But when Millen finally cocked the hammer it was to fake a slap shot. Then, in a blur, he slid a backdoor pass to a line mate who shot at the half-empty goal. But the puck found the leather of Burke's leg pad, not the mesh of the net. As Millen was passing to his teammate, Burke bolted across the crease and kicked. Millen lay on the ice, pounding it with frustration. Final score: 5-4.
January 27, 1988
Among those filing out of Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ont., was a rangy lawyer and ex-NHL goaltender who could not shake the memory of Burke's kick save. "You see saves like that, where someone makes a desperate lunge—waves an arm or a leg and happens to hit the puck," said Ken Dryden. "But usually you get a sense of it having been just that, desperate. This was no panicked lunge. There was something very solid about it. They gave the MVP to someone else, but there was no question Burke was the difference in that game."
Afterward, a bevy of Burke family members and friends from Dovercourt, Ont., waited for him outside the Coliseum. Burke, who has just turned 21, is insightful, with an ego that's blessedly modest. The media had surrounded his locker for 25 minutes, so he was among the last Canadians out—a point his grandmother, Katherine, noted in scolding tones.
Ron Burke was a sandlot pitcher who says he could have had a career in baseball had he not torn muscles in his back, then tried to play through the pain. Instead, he was so tough he played himself out of the game. He has a simple explanation for his son's prowess in goal: "That's always been the way with his hockey."
His hockey. An ironic choice of pronoun, since Sean Burke plays their hockey: Ron's and Katherine's and all of Dovercourt's. "You play for your teammates and your friends and family, for everyone who showed up at the games or gave me a ride—everyone who was a part of it," says Sean. "I could stop playing today, never go any further in hockey, and they would still be proud of me."
Because he is tall—6'3"—like Dryden, and hails from the Toronto area, like Dryden, comparisons between Burke and the former Montreal Canadien star are inevitable. They crumble just under the surface, however. Dryden grew up in upper-middle-class Islington, arriving in the NHL via Cornell University. Burke is from Dovercourt, a sooty neighborhood of row houses in the shadow of Toronto's central business district—"If you can't fight, it helps if you have a few extra sandwiches in your lunch," says Ron. Sean received letters of interest from Michigan, Michigan State. Yale, Harvard and Princeton, but elected to skip college to accelerate his journey to the NHL. He is on loan to Team Canada from the New Jersey Devils, who picked him second in the 1985 entry draft.
When Edmonton Oiler holdout Moog joined the Olympic team last fall, the assumption was that he would be Canada's best bet in Calgary. But Burke's performance has clouded the decision for Canadian Olympic coach Dave King. Through Dec. 29, Moog's goals-against average was 3.83, Burke's 2.92 for Canada's pre-Olympic games. And as King points out, "Even though Andy has played in the NHL for so long, Sean is the veteran when it comes to international hockey." Burke has been on Canada's national team since '86.
King remembers scouting Burke when he was a 17-year-old rookie with the Toronto Marlboros Junior A team. "He would be brilliant one night and just ordinary the next," King says. "He's really reduced that fluctuation. Sometimes, after he lets a goal in, instead of losing his temper, he'll freeze, look at the right post, the left post, his angle, his position—all to make sure he doesn't make the same mistake twice."
Tuning out the extraneous was something Burke learned early. His mother and father separated when Sean was "eight or nine." Sally Burke raised Sandra. 20, and Brian, 18; Ron raised Sean and Christine, who is now 16. That Sean even made it to his games in Squirt, Pee-wee, Bantam, Midget and Junior B leagues is amazing, considering Ron has never had a car. He owned a fast-food restaurant in Dovercourt but sold it after his divorce and used the money to help raise the children.
Sean would get home from school, pack his equipment bag and go to the bus stop. He preferred to be at the rink an hour and a half early. "That was a little much," says Ron, "but what can you do? You don't want to discourage that kind of behavior." Oblivious of the diesel fumes and of the stares of commuters struck by the sight of an eight-year-old lugging a duffel bag bigger than he was, Sean, on his long commutes, would imagine himself making crucial saves. That didn't make him much different from the other goalies his age. Except that a couple of hours later, he would actually make those saves.
"I remember when he was 14, and at St. Michael's," says Dan McLean, a family friend. "The Toronto Nationals had the best Junior Bantam team in all of Ontario. They came down and Sean just put on a show. Stood on his head. They beat the Nats 4-1."
By high school Burke was an outstanding prospect, and so many people told him about it that he could have cultivated a swollen head. That he did not can probably be attributed to his attending St. Michael's, a Toronto school run by Basilian fathers. At St. Michael's—which has produced such NHL stars as Frank and Pete Mahovlich, former Syracuse University basketball star Leo Rautins and welterweight Shawn O'Sullivan—Burke was just another jock. "[The Basilians] didn't care if you had made 50 saves on Thursday night, if you didn't have your homework Friday morning," says Sean.
Burke beat out Finnish-import Timo Lehkonen for the starting goaltender's job with the Marlboros in 1984, started 49 of 65 games and was named the team's MVP. Selected to play for Canada in the Pravda Cup in Moscow in 1986, Burke shut out the Soviet B team for a period. "This is great!" he remembers thinking. "We're playing in Russia, and I'm shutting them out! I've got this game licked!" Then the Soviets scored 10 goals in the next 40 minutes.
"That was a rude awakening, but healthy. I realized then that I would not make it on natural ability alone," says Burke. "There's still a lot I have to learn about this game."
Burke has proved himself to be an apt student. Last December he returned to Moscow and helped lead Team Canada to its first Izvestia Cup title in the 21-year history of the tournament. He also was selected as the best goaltender in the six-country, round-robin competition.
Burke spends his summers working for $150 (Canadian) a week at the Dovercourt Boys Club, a three-minute walk from home. He could make at least twice as much money teaching at a hockey school, but he prefers to come home to the old neighborhood. It's his way of repaying the community for all those rides home from games.
So, what will happen in Calgary? Says Burke, "I have personal goals, but they're, well, personal."
"He doesn't want to tell me what they are," says Ron. "He's afraid I'll think he's bragging."
One safe guess: Sean Burke wants an Olympic medal. Then, after the Games, he will fly to Toronto International Airport, where his family and half of Dovercourt will be waiting for him. Some will just beam; some will want to touch the medal. His grandmother will remark on how late the plane was. Then they'll all take the bus back to the neighborhood.