We can't get the guy we really want, the Coyotes told incumbent
unrestricted free-agent goaltender Sean Burke last summer, so we
guess you'll have to do. And, by the way, take a $1 million pay
cut, or the deal's off.
That was the unlikely prelude to what has been the best season
of Burke's 13-year NHL career, a turn of events he attributes to
several factors. There's the goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, with
whom he bonded instantly. There's the accumulated wisdom of all
those years in the league. "I'm working smarter," says the
34-year-old Burke, "and not worrying about things beyond my
control." Finally, there's the yoga. Last spring he took a class
at a health club. "Me and 20 middle-aged women," he says. Next
thing you know, he's spending at least an hour every day getting
centered and performing such stretches as the Cobra, the Tree
Pose and the Downward Dog--which doubled, for much of the last
few years, as a description of where Burke was headed.
Burke finished last season with the Coyotes--his fourth team since
1997--and felt good about the way he had played. Still, the summer
passed without a contract offer from Phoenix or any of the
league's other 29 clubs. With nothing else to do, Burke, who
spends the off-season at his summer home in Sylvan Lake, Alberta,
bought a plane ticket and spent an awkward week in Arizona in
August, joining some Coyotes in informal workouts at the team's
training facility. When a session ended, the Phoenix players
would file into the dressing room. Burke, not officially a member
of the Coyotes, changed in a little room in a different part of
the building. "It was uncomfortable," he says. "It felt like I
Lord knows the NHL had taught him humility. After breaking in
spectacularly with the Devils in March 1988--he won 10 of his
first 11 starts and all but single-handedly delivered New Jersey
to the first playoff berth in franchise history--his career
cooled. After a rancorous contract dispute with the Devils in
'91, Burke was traded to the Hartford Whalers and spent four
seasons performing nightly heroics for that woebegone club. It
was his fate, after escaping the Insurance City, to become one
of the league's most popular insurance policies. General
managers didn't think of him as the franchise player he'd been
early in his career but as a dependable rent-a-goalie. He donned
the sweaters of the Hurricanes (as the Whalers were renamed when
the franchise moved to Raleigh four years ago), the Canucks, the
Flyers and the Panthers before Phoenix traded for him in
Burke's solid play last season (2.57 goals-against average) put
the Coyotes into the playoffs, but they were dispatched by the
Avalanche in five games. Phoenix showed little interest in
re-signing Burke, and as the summer wore on, he suspected that
his NHL days might be over. He and his wife, Leslie, were O.K.
with that. "If things didn't work out, we were prepared to move
on," he says. "Everything else in my life was pretty good, so I
wasn't going to let the hockey bring me down."
He was bailed out by a fellow goaltender. The Coyotes' Nikolai
Khabibulin, who missed the 1999-2000 season because he couldn't
come to terms on a contract, appeared ready to sit out a second
straight year. On Sept. 9, the day after training camp began,
Phoenix G.M. Bobby Smith offered Burke a one-year deal for $1.3
million, slightly less than the league average. Take it or leave
Burke took it, and he has taken the league by storm. Through
Sunday he was third in the NHL in save percentage (.922) despite
playing behind a team that yields more scoring chances than the
XFL cheerleaders. "He's stolen games for us," says wing Shane
Doan. "He's gotten us points we don't even remotely deserve."
Burke has masked more flaws than Maybelline while leading Phoenix
to the eighth-best record in the West (33-26-16-3). He stopped 38
shots to shut out the Oilers on Feb. 9; 39 in blanking the
Rangers on Nov. 12; and 45 in whitewashing the Avalanche on Oct.
How has he gone from hockey hobo to NHL All-Star and Vezina
Trophy candidate? He traces his improvement to the moment he met
the mild-mannered, bespectacled Allaire. Allaire boosted Burke's
confidence by telling Burke at the get-go that he had long
regarded him as one of the top 10 talents in the league. He also
told Burke that his technique needed work, reminding him to
always be square to the shooter and asking him to play a touch
deeper in the crease than he had been. Anything else? "Yes,"
Allaire says, "but I want to keep it a secret."
Whatever it is, it's working. "Sean has been incredible," said
Wayne Gretzky on Feb. 16, the day after he became the Coyotes'
minority owner and managing partner. The first conundrum that
faced Gretzky and Cliff Fletcher, the general manager he brought
in to replace Smith, was whether to entrust their goaltending
future to Burke or lay out enough cash to bring back the
28-year-old Khabibulin. The Coyotes decided that Burke was their
man. On Feb. 26, Phoenix signed him to a three-year, $9 million
extension. A week later, Khabibulin was dealt to the Lightning
for three young players and a second-round draft pick.
Another reason Phoenix stuck with Burke is that he's as good in
the dressing room as he is between the pipes. With the Coyotes
orchestrating a youth movement, it's important to have "the right
people around to influence" the kids, says Gretzky. Backup
goaltender Robert Esche, 23, and netminder-of-the-future Patrick
DesRochers, 21, regard Burke as a father figure. After DesRochers
was sent to the minors earlier this season, Burke phoned him,
telling him to work hard and to keep his chin up. Esche says of
Burke, "He'll stand up to anyone--that's what I like about him.
He's not afraid to tell your best player where to go."
Indeed, when Gretzky describes Burke as good in the room, that
doesn't mean that Burke is always quiet or, for that matter,
civil. For the last four seasons--during which Phoenix hasn't won
a playoff series--the Coyotes' two dominant personalities have
been Keith Tkachuk, who was the captain until he was traded to
the Blues last month, and alternate captain Jeremy Roenick. Those
high-scoring, highly paid forwards were accustomed to receiving
the red carpet treatment in the Valley of the Sun and weren't
used to being criticized. Burke has had no problem upbraiding
them or anyone else, whether behind closed doors or in print.
His recent extension changed the calculus in the dressing room.
Suddenly Burke was the star with security, and Tkachuk and
Roenick were facing uncertainty. Roenick, who becomes an
unrestricted free agent after this season, said he was insulted
by Phoenix's initial offer to him last month--less than $6
million a year--and spoke of the "dark cloud" hovering over him.
One's heart went out to the lad. Tkachuk, whose salary this year
is $8.3 million, might be looking for yet another home at the
end of next season, when his megabucks contract expires.
It's Burke, for a change, who knows where he'll be. He called
Leslie from Boston when his contract was finalized. "She said,
'What a great thing to have happen after everything we've been
through.' It was kind of a sweet moment we shared."
A sweet moment made sweeter by something that was inserted into
the contract at Burke's request: a no-trade clause.
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Despite playing behind a poor defense, Burke was third in the NHL with a .922 save percentage.