December 13, 2022
Sean Burke: the Carolina Hurricanes' Would-Be Inaugural Starter
By Jeb Bohn
When the New Jersey Devils turned to a 21-year-old rookie goaltender in March 1988, they likely had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, Sean Burke—the player in question—won 10 of his 13 appearances and helped the Devils make their Stanley Cup Playoffs debut.
Thanks in no small part to Burke’s play, the upstart Devils ousted the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals before their season ended in the Conference Finals at the hands of the Boston Bruins. This run was nothing short of a miracle for a team that, since arriving for the 1982-83 season, had won just 113 out of 400 regular-season games.
The young goalie quickly received hype as the Devil’s saving grace. Unfortunately for the team, that wouldn’t last.
Sean Burke: A Rise and A Fall
While not quite at the level shown during his brief stint the year prior, Burke performed well enough during the 1988-89 season to earn a berth in the All-Star Game, the first time a New Jersey player received such an honor. The team, however, showed major regression and failed to qualify for the postseason.
Things continued to stagnate for both Burke and the Devils through the 1990-91 season. The goalie couldn’t seem to get over the hump and return to his early form while the team was just good enough to earn first-round exits in 1990 and 1991.
With his Canadian Olympic and early NHL success ceding to a mediocre career, Burke opted to sit out the 1991-92 season instead of re-signed with New Jersey. During this time, he played for the Canadian National Team and took home Olympic Silver in Albertville, France. Burke also appeared in a handful of games with San Diego of the IHL, though his NHL future remained uncertain.
The picture became clearer when, on August 28, 1992, Burke—along with defenseman Eric Weinrich—was traded to the Hartford Whalers.
One Move Leads to Another
Burke appeared in 50 games during his first season in Hartford, posting a 16-27-3 record. Granted, the woeful Whalers finished 5th in their division, but Burke’s 4.16 GAA and .876 save percentage did little to help the cause.
Over the next four seasons, Burke saw improvement in his personal stats, though the team showed no marked improvement and failed to qualify for the playoffs between 1993-1997.
During this time, rumors swirled that Peter Karmanos—who purchased the team in 1994 and was desperate to escape the outdated Hartford Civic Center—was searching out a new home for his team. Now, I’m not going to delve into all that here (though I did here); instead, let’s jump to the end result.
Following the 1996-97 NHL season, the Whalers moved south, gained a new color scheme, and a new name: the Carolina Hurricanes. Over the summer of 97, General Manager Jim Rutherford made a few moves to tweak the roster. One of these moves brought in goaltender Trevor Kidd and rugged winger Gary Roberts from the Calgary Flames.
Kidd, picked 11th overall in the 1990 Entry Draft, appeared in 178 games with the Flames, but never lived up to his first-round pick status in Alberta. Rutherford hoped that a change of scenery would spark Kidd’s performance and give the Hurricanes a reliable goaltending duo.
The Hurricanes stumbled out of the gate, starting the 1997-98 season with three consecutive losses, surrendering 11 goals in the process. By the time October ended, Carolina held a woeful 3-8-3 record.
Through the first month, Burke started half of the team’s 14 games, going 0-4-3 and stopping just 88% of the shots he faced. While Kidd’s record (3-4) fell below .500, his overall performance stood well above Burke’s.
That, however, is far from the worst.
In early November, Burke’s wife Leslie called 911 and told the dispatcher her “husband beat her up.” Police charged them both and Hurricane’s coach Paul Maurice benched the goalie for the team’s next game.
Despite this, the team didn’t suspend Burke. I’m not going to speculate on anything to do with this, but I will say that—according to Leslie—this wasn’t the first time her husband acted in such a way. The event didn’t endear the goaltender to North Carolina fans, though his play actually showed improvement.
Regardless, it seemed certain that Burke’s time with the Hurricanes would be cut short.
In early 1998, it ended.
On the Road Again
On January 3, 1998, 17-year-old me made the 2 1/2 hour drive to Greensboro to watch as the Hurricanes hosted the Dallas Stars. As I sat waiting for warmups to start, Mark Roberts came on the PA to announce the scratches for the game. Among them were two unexpected names:
Martin Gelinas and Kirk McLean.
Now, during this time, I didn’t even have a computer at home and smartphones didn’t exist, so I had no clue what happened. I knew the players; how they became Hurricanes, not so much. As the Stars rolled the Canes to the tune of 6-1, I pondered the trade. Who did we send to Vancouver? What’s going on?
I got the answer the next morning. Burke, along with Geoff Sanderson and Enrico Ciccone went to the Canucks; Gelinas and McLean came back.
Burke would appear in just 16 games for Vancouver, posting a 2-9-4 record. The following seasons brought stops in Philadelphia, Florida, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, and Los Angeles. After retiring in 2009, he served in development roles with Phoenix and Montreal before being named Director of Goaltending with the Vegas Golden Knights.
In hindsight, Sean Burke’s biggest impact on the Hurricanes was being traded for Martin Gelinas. Over 348 games, the winger became a fan-favorite and played an instrumental role in Carolina’s surprise run to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final.
Carolina Hurricanes (1997-98)