In many ways, it was one of the most heart-warming stories of the year when the Phoenix Coyotes invited career minor-leaguer Joe Burton to training camp and put him in their lineup on Oct. 3 for an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Kings in Oklahoma City.
It was also a clever reminder to the Coyotes' players of how many determined players there are in the minors just waiting to take their place and how much tougher the lifestyle is in the minor leagues.
Burton is a smallish, former college-hockey star who played in Europe before putting in 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League. He's led his team to two league championships, twice been named the CHL Most Valuable Player and nine times to the CHL All-Star Team. He owns or shares 19 CHL scoring records.
Yet, until this fall, he'd never had as much as an NHL tryout. Burton has decided that this will be his last season. He has a wife and two small children and intends to start a new career next year. He's already moving in that direction by working part-time for a mortgage firm.
"My whole problem is that I'm pretty small and I'm not a flashy player for a goal scorer," Burton explained. "I'm a garbage-goal scorer. I don't stand out in practice, I'm more of a game player.
"It's kind of a joke but I used to be compared to Dino Ciccarelli when he was with Detroit, where I'm from, because we kind of scored goals the same way: Stand in front of the net, anticipate where the puck is going to go and be ready."
We love the flashy goal scorers like Sergei Fedorov, Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but a shooting-instructional video made a dozen years by NHL scorers Geoff and Russ Courtnall (651 NHL goals between them) noted that nearly half of all NHL goals are scored along the ice.
Ciccarelli scored 608 goals in his career. Pat Verbeek, another "garbage" collector retired last season with 522 goals. Top rebounder Dave Andreychuk has 601 goals.
There's great value in players who can establish position down low, take the pounding from opposing players, push home rebounds and re-direct shots. That's Burton's game.
He had higher aspirations when he graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, but wasn't drafted by an NHL team and received no training camp offers. So he went to Denmark to play hockey.
"I just wanted to play hockey when I got out of college but I also wanted to finish my degree, so I stayed in college an extra year," Burton said. "Then I went to play in Europe for a year, in Denmark. I was the only foreign player on the team and it really wasn't for me. I tried out the next two years for ECHL teams in Nashville and Cincinnati but I didn't make it."
Burton thought his career might be over but then he learned of a new opportunity.
"I had heard about this league starting out so I sent my resume to half the teams in the league and I wound up coming here," he said. "I played first for Mike McEwen, who won three Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. I was actually the last guy picked for the team. Player-coach Mark Berge persuaded them to keep me."
When the low-minor-league players in the movie Slap Shot are forced to face unwelcome retirement due to the sale of their team they compare each other's plights. Referring to a teammate who went to Princeton, one says, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd get an education. Look at Ned here. He doesn't have to depend on hockey."
To an outsider, Burton doesn't need hockey. He has an accounting degree and eight credits toward a teaching certificate. He needed something from hockey, a validation of his skills or that thrill from scoring and hearing the cheers. He knows the Blazers will have difficulty finding someone who can do what he does but it's time to move on after this season.
"The only thing I regret about playing this long is the money. Now, it's kind of scary with two kids and not a lot of savings," he said. "At 35, I'm starting fresh to find a job. Everything else about it, I enjoyed. Surprisingly, I got to spend more time with my kids when they were younger, but I can't retire off the earnings from this league."
He'll leave the game with a lot of respect for it and for his specialty: Rebounding.