September 26, 2017

Legends of Team Canada: Sean Burke

Long before he established himself as a top NHL goaltender, Sean Burke was a household name in Canada.

After getting a taste of international hockey in the 1986 world junior championships, the highly rated goaltender opted to apprentice with the Canadian national team instead of the minor professional leagues. In the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons the lanky Burke stopped pucks in 78 official games with the national team, winning 46 of them. 

His performance was strong enough to make the 1988 Olympic team, though he’d have to share goaltending duties with NHL holdout Andy Moog. The duo formed a formidable tandem - arguably the best tandem anywhere in the world -  but ultimately the team could only finish in fourth place in front of a Canadian audience.

Burke would go on to the National Hockey League and quickly prove to be a big league netminder. By 1991 his strong play combined with his international experience made him a solid choice as the third goalie for a victorious Team Canada at the Canada Cup. He never played a minute of action as he backed up Bill Ranford and Ed Belfour.

While most of the members of the 1991 Canada Cup championship team quickly disbanded back to their NHL clubs, Burke became involved in a contract dispute with the New Jersey Devils that would ultimately cost him the entire NHL season. Burke returned to his roots and joined the Canadian national team for most of the season. It was perfect timing as 1992 was another Olympic year. Burke would post a strong 5-2 record with a 2.37 goals against average as he backstopped Canada to an impressive silver medal performance.

"There are two ways of looking at this," said Burke at the time. "First of all, I have been forced. I was backed into a corner. But I knew the chances of something happening might not happen so I was prepared to be here. It wasn't a difficult decision at all. I know how much I benefited from this program and realized I could learn a lot and this is as good a place to learn."
"Some of the best times I've ever had in hockey have been with this team, playing in the (1988) Olympics and the experiences leading up to them. I'm ready to go through it again," Burke said. "Hopefully, I can get as much out of it the second time as I did the first time."

"I feel a real sense of loyalty to Dave (King)," he added.

"The rules don't allow it, but you could put the C on Sean Burke and it wouldn't be out of place,' said the head coach admiringly. "He's very much an ordinary hockey player. That's what I like about Sean. He doesn't have the quirks of some goalies. He's a basic, typical hockey player. He has a good fitness level. He's a tremendous guy when he's not playing. Just a great leader. Some goalies don't bring it to a team.'

When pressed, Burke could not choose which Olympic experience was his favorite.

"To play as the host country in 1988 was such a unique experience," he said, but added "obviously winning the medal in 1992 was extra special."
Like Ryan Smyth, Burke could always be counted on to play for Canada whenever called upon.

Burke often played with weak NHL teams and often were knocked out of the playoffs early. As a result Burke extended his season four times as he participated in four world championships. Having won silver medals in 1989 and 1991, Burke’s 7-1-3 record including three shutouts earned him a rare Canadian gold medal at the prestigious tournament.

Because of his extensive international experience, Burke always seemed to be on the cusp of rejoining Team Canada for major events. Such was the case in 2002 when Ed Belfour edged him out of the reserve goaltender role. Had he made the team, it would have been Burke’s third Olympic games. That would have set a record for Canadian goaltenders and would have tied Terry O’Malley, Wally Schreiber and Eric Lindros among all hockey players.

And now Burke returns to a very different Canadian Olympic program. In 2017 he was asked to be Team Canada's general manager for the 2018 Olympics. The dominating story line there of course being the absence of NHL players.

Burke has no lack of Olympic experience, and is quickly rising in the management ranks. He surrounds himself with former Olympians including Dave King, Tom Renney, Martin Brodeur and Craig Woodcroft.

One thing is for sure - Sean Burke will do Canada proud yet again.

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