by David Dickenson
Those who weren’t hockey fans in the 80’s and 90’s are already asking themselves… who the heck is Sean Burke? But if you’re looking for a relevant answer to that question then just ask Ilya Bryzgalov or Mike Smith and I’m sure either will be willing to enlighten you.
Some may think of him as the big goaltender who was not just fundamentally sound, but an athletic freak for the position in the 80’s and 90’s for a number of team most notably the New Jersey Devils, with other stops in Hartford, Carolina, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Florida, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Some may also think of him as the goaltender who backstopped Canada to a fourth place finish in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary (years before professionals were allowed to participate).
Others may also just remember him as a cool cat who used to slap the bass as part of a band in his free time away from the rinks, but everyone who watches hockey today should know him and revere him as the league’s premier “Goalie Whisperer”!
After retiring in 2007, Burke managed to join his former team the Phoenix Coyotes as a player development coach and eventually ended up the team’s assistant to the general manager as well as the team’s goaltenders coach, where he’s been spinning straw into gold for the past handful of seasons.
How Bryzgalov became Mr. Universe
The first recipient of his Goalie Whispering was the big Russian Ilya Bryzgalov, who’s maybe now more known for his views and wonderment for the universe than his actual goaltending skills.
Prior to acting as the young Jedi under the tutelage of Burke, Bryzgalov managed to see backup duty with the Anaheim Ducks having played only 69 games in seven seasons with the club, including a career high for him at the time of 13 wins, 12 losses, one overtime loss and a 2.51 goals against average and a single shutout during that time period.
With Phoenix, Mr. Universe not only got his shot, but was thrust into the starters role, in a defensive system of play (ideal for any goaltender) and worked out daily with Burke, who helped the Russian hone his craft and become an all-star and one of the highest paid keepers in the game.
In his four seasons in Phoenix, Byrzgalov never played less than 55 games in a season and not only kept a low goals against average, but increased his win totals to 26, 26, 42, and 36, while even managing to net eight shutouts in the 2009-10 season. Pretty strong totals for a keeper, who was playing on a team comprised of very little top end talent.
After leaving Phoenix and Burke, Bryzgalov managed to put up good numbers on a very strong Philadelphia team, but also saw his wins, shutouts and goals against average take some dips.
Who’s Mike Smith?
Following Bryzgalov’s mammoth payday by the Flyers, Phoenix was left to regroup with not only an even weaker roster, but had to turn over the reins of their team over to a generically named Mike Smith, who had previously been a mediocre goaltender at best previously and seemed destined to sit on some team’s bench as a backup to the team’s starter.
Smith was also a big and athletic keeper like Bryzgalov and his new mentor Burke, however he lacked any of the real basic fundamentals needed to excel at the goaltender position.
After his arrival, the former Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning keeper went right to work at taking his shot at the starting job and trying to erase memories of previous seasons which included a career best 42 games in Tampa which amounted to a 13-18-0-1 record and a 3.09 GAA, a single shutout and a .900 save percentage.
Again working out with Burke daily and learning from the wise former keeper, Smith came out gangbusters on a Coyotes team which was comprised primarily of castoffs from other organizations as he shot forward to a 36-18-0-10 record in 67 starts, including eight shutouts, a 2.21 GAA, a .930 save percentage and also saw him set a NHL record for the most saves in a regulation shutout victory (54) during a 2-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 3, 2012.
The athletic Smith, was no longer a career minor leaguer or a NHL backup, but a bonefide NHL starter under Burke’s teachings.
His lessons learned served him well as he also was able to steal the spotlight during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as he led the Coyotes to their first playoff series win since 1987 and also eliminated one of the playoff favourites Nashville Predators in the second round before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final.