Garrett Burnett is a physically imposing person. At 6-feet 3-inches and weighing in at 235-pounds of chiseled muscle, to say that he packs a presence is an understatement. His eyes are steely and penetrating, and I am sure could be quite unnerving to opposing players on the ice. Garrett’s size and strength are unmistakable, but at the same time they are deceiving. For while his appearance may be intimidating, his heart and the way that he presents himself are endearing to say the least. In fact, Garrett Burnett is probably one of the most polite, humble persons whom I have ever engaged with. Garrett invested time in his responses to me; some of which were quite poignant. You can tell that he feels a genuine care and concern for those whom he interacts with. And I am certain that this same care and concern for others allowed him to be a formidable enforcer and protector of his teammates; the likes of which included Sergei Fedorov, Vaclav Pospal, Petr Sykora, and numerous other talented NHL players.
Born September 23rd, 1975 in Coquitlam, British Columbia, it would not take long for a Canadian kid like Garrett to fall in love with the game of hockey, but it would perhaps be for a different reason than most kids. “I began watching my father, Bob, play hockey in the Royal City Hockey League, and I wanted to be just like my father, and I instantly fell in love with hockey. Growing up in Canada, loving hockey was bound to happen, but I had a huge desire to be just like my dad”. Like most Canadian families, the Burnetts regularly found themselves watching CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday nights and routinely following NHL games. As did so many other kids like him, Garrett dreamed of some day lacing up the skates in an NHL game himself. “… Just before my fifth birthday, my organized hockey career began at a local minor hockey association”. Garrett would play for local teams out of the Port Moody Minor Hockey Association, the Coquitlam Minor Hockey Association, and the Burnaby Winter Club.
Youth hockey would eventually lead Garrett to the highly esteemed Junior-A hockey as well as Major Junior hockey throughout Canada. Following his dream of playing in the NHL would lead him further away from home than he had ever been before, and this certainly was not the easiest adjustment for a young man. “I first left home when I was 17. I played for Junior-A teams in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountain Leagues. I lived with billet families in the cities where I played, and that took some getting used to”. Thankfully for Garrett, he has a very supportive and loving family to this day, who backed him and encouraged him as he pursued his dream of playing in the NHL. And even though he was far away from home, Burnett was still able to see his family at Christmas time and during the off-seasons, not to mention the fact that numerous times his family would come to see Garrett play in person. “My family was very supportive in all of this. They came to see me play in several cities that I played in and against… They encouraged me to believe in myself, and to stay committed to all of the hard work and time that I was putting in. To see them proud and happy only encouraged me to work harder and reach further”.
Discussing with Garrett his path to the NHL, one cannot help but admire the work ethic that he demonstrated. Oftentimes, Garrett had to continue to believe in his goals well within the face of adversity. “I realized that I wanted to play professionally at a very early age”, Garrett would recall. “But along the way, from my childhood teams, to my Junior teams, and even at the pro level, I received harsh criticism from coaches, saying that I wasn’t talented enough. But that encouraged me to just get on the ice earlier, stay on the ice later, workout when I had spare time, and just use every single angle I could take to become a more talented hockey player. Even as I managed to make teams in lower levels I was not expected to make, I kept working harder to try to reach further for more success in making the higher levels”.
Burnett’s determination would lead him to playing in Major Junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, initially for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and then later the Kitchener Rangers during the 1994-95 season. While going goalless during 36-regular season games, Garrett would still pick up 2-assists to go along with an immense 152-penalty minutes. Garrett would also see action in 3 postseason games for Kitchener, tallying 1-assist and 23 more penalty minutes during those games, but it would be for naught as the Rangers would fall 4-games to 1 against the Sudbury Wolves.
1994-95 would be Garrett’s lone season playing Major Junior, and he would move onto playing professionally in some of the lower tiered hockey leagues at this level. The 1995-96 season would begin what would end up being a journeyman’s career for Garrett, as over the next three seasons he would play in four different professional leagues and in nine different cities. Garrett would see stops in the old Colonial Hockey League (which would eventually become the United Hockey League), suiting up for the Utica Blizzard, as well as the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Oklahoma City Blazers and Tulsa Oilers, the East Coast Hockey League’s (ECHL) Nashville Knights, Jacksonville Lizard Kings, Knoxville Cherokees, and Johnstown Jets, and even coming within one step of the NHL when he would see action with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Philadelphia Phantoms. It would seem inconceivable to most hockey experts that a player who would bounce around the minor leagues with as much regularity as Garrett would ever make it onto an NHL roster. But the opportunity to do so would not be so very far away.
In June of 1998, Garrett Burnett would sign his first contract with an NHL organization, the San Jose Sharks. And while it would be about five more years until he would make his NHL debut, being signed by an NHL franchise would not only be a momentous occasion for Garrett, but would also enable him to continue to put his hard work and commitment to action and to better himself as a hockey player. The Sharks would assign Garrett to their AHL minor league affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, and it would be here that Garrett would play some of his best hockey to that point in his career and garner himself the reputation as one of the games most feared enforcers.
“My days with the Kentucky Thoroughblades were awesome! Those teams and players were amazing. And there would be a lot of future success enjoyed by several of my former teammates. I am so proud and happy for each and every one of them”. Garrett played for Kentucky for the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons, and some of his teammates during those years included NHL regulars like Evgeni Nabokov, Eric Boulton, Dan Boyle, Filip Kuba, Shawn Burr, Scott Hannan, Alexander Korolyuk and Miikka Kiprusoff. “I am just so happy to see all of my former teammates enjoy the successes that they have enjoyed in their careers!”. Garrett himself would have a most impressive season during the 1999-00 season when in 58-games for the Thoroughblades he would score 3-goals and 3-assists, while registering an astounding 506-penalty minutes(!). Garrett looks back on those seasons in Kentucky with warm memories and great appreciation; much of which he extolls upon the coaching staff and the community. “I could definitely not forget to praise the amazing coaching we had with (assistant coach) Nick Fotiu and (head coach) Roy Sommer. The fans were also a huge part of my experience, and they were awesome!”.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Burnett then was able to hone at least some of his pugilistic skill under the watchful eye of one of pro hockey’s all time scrappiest tough guys in Nick Fotiu. The assistant coach Fotiu was a veteran of 646-regular season NHL games and totaled 1,326-penalty minutes in his career, as well as two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals. While they shared in fun-loving, successful teams together in Kentucky, this would not be the last time that Garrett would receive a helping hand from Fotiu. Despite additional journeyman travels between 2000-2002 in the IHL (Cleveland Lumberjacks), AHL (Cincinnati Mighty Ducks who were coached by Stanley Cup-winning and current Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, Mike Babcock) and the UHL (New Haven Knights), Garrett would enjoy arguably his finest professional season with the Hartford Wolf Pack; once again Fotiu was Burnett’s assistant coach.
The 2002-03 Hartford Wolf Pack were an extremely talented and an extremely tough hockey club. “Hartford was an awesome team and experience. We did have a huge amount of toughness. I think Coach Nick Fotiu may have helped me land in the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate. That season brought some really good stats for me”. The Wolf Pack possessed top-notch scoring talent in the likes of Roman Lyashenko, Nils Ekman, Dixon Ward and John Tripp; all of whom eclipsed the 20-goal plateau. In addition to Garrett’s AHL league leading 346-penalty minutes, teammates Ward, Garth Murray, Jeff State, Billy Tibbetts, Tomas Kloucek, Gordie Dwyer, and Richard Scott all surpassed 100-penalty minutes. Coinciding with his immense lead in penalty minutes, Garrett also put up 6-goals and 1-assist, while appearing in 62-regular season games for the Wolf Pack; he would also appear in one of Hartford’s two playoff games against the Springfield Falcons, as they were swept in the opening round 2-games to none.
But it would be Babcock’s assurance in Cincinnati during 2001-02 that would eventually prove prophetic for Garrett. “It was advised to me at the end of the season by Coach Mike Babcock when I asked him what I had to do to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, Babs said, ‘Burny, everybody knows you can fight, but if you can just put up some points…’. While with the Wolf Pack the next season, Garrett did put up those points. “As it turned out, Babcock stayed true to his advice, and gave me a contract in Anaheim, in the NHL, after I had that season in Hartford, where I actually increased my point scoring noticeably”. Garrett would sign with Babcock and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in late-July 2003, and would see his dream come true.
At 28-years of age, Garrett would make his NHL debut as a Mighty Duck for the first game of the regular season on October 8th, 2003 against the Dallas Stars. While Anaheim would lose the game 4-1, Garrett would have a superb first game, squaring-off against the Stars’ John Erskine and recording a shot on goal in addition to the fisticuffs. “My first NHL game was awesome! It still makes my heart beat fast and hard to even think about it! My parents, sister and grandfather flew into Dallas for the game. Because it was the first game of the NHL season, the USA Today had a picture of me on the front page of the sports section, and the title to the story said “The Boys are Back”. I just remember how extremely proud my family was for me, and it melts my heart just to remember their excitement, especially since my father recently passed away”.
Protecting the likes of Mighty Ducks’ teammates Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora, Vinny Prospal, Andy McDonald, Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh, Samuel Pahlsson and more, Garrett Burnett would suit up for 38-more games that season, tallying up 1-goal, 2-assists, and 184-penalty minutes. Garrett would score his first NHL goal March 16th, 2004 during a 3-2 win versus the Phoenix Coyotes against goaltender Brent Johnson. “I remember a lot about that goal. I was pushing through to the net, trying to cause a screen and traffic in front of the net. The puck was shot at the net, and I was fortunately able to touch and re-direct the puck, and it found an opening into the goal net”. Garrett would participate in 22 fights during his sole NHL season, including a season finale against the Calgary Flames in which Garrett would receive coincidental penalties for cross-checking, instigating, fighting, a misconduct penalty and a game misconduct while tangling with Marcus Nilsson, all for a total 29-penalty minutes.
This lone season with the Ducks would unfortunately be Garrett’s only NHL season. And while he would play professional for three more seasons, including a stop with the Dallas Stars organization as a free agent after the NHL lockout in 2004-05, horrible tragedy would sadly bring Garrett’s career to an end. In December of 2006, Garrett would be assaulted outside of a nightclub in North Delta, British Columbia. The vicious attack on Garrett would see him hospitalized, including being comatose for 20-days and being kept on life support. “Yes, that incident was terrible for me, but I can’t even imagine how traumatizing it was for my family. I was unable to skate or play hockey for 5-years, amongst other things, including basic motor skills that I was unable to perform. After a full commitment to bettering myself, which will never end until I die, I re-learned a lot of these things”. I can only imagine that Garrett’s perseverance and his never-quit attitude are what helped pull him out of such a horrible experience and to be able to recover as he did; that, and the sincere love and care of his family.
These days, Garrett spends a lot of his time with his wife and daughter, and making the most of every moment. “I would do anything for them”, Garrett proudly asserts to me. As he protected his teammates for so many years, Garrett is still very much a protector today. “I am committed to lending my compassion and presence to protect people through different kinds of hosting, security and bodyguard jobs”. Through my discussion with Garrett, I feel myself more at ease and my faith in humanity a little renewed. It makes you feel good, knowing that there is a giant-sized individual, both in physical size and in heart, like Garrett who endeavors to protect others. Almost like a superhero. Protecting teammates on the ice, and protecting his family and fellow man off of it.
It is reassuring to know that someone like Garrett Burnett is around. That presence, that reassuring nature, that awe-inspiring size and strength – Garrett is one of the good guys. A real life superman of sorts.