By Mike Mastovich
Garrett Burnett only played 34 games with the ECHL Johnstown Chiefs.
But neither Burnett nor the Johnstown fans who watched him during the 1997-98 season will forget the 6-foot-3, 235-pound enforcer’s colorful stay here.
“It’s so funny. Every day something crazy happened,” Burnett, a left wing with the NHL Anaheim Mighty Ducks, said during a telephone interview. “Every game, there was so much stuff that happened there. I remember all of it.
“I remember (former Chiefs coach) Nicky Fotiu and (Blizzard coach) Charlie Huddy having a heated discussion in the hall in Huntington. Everybody was ready to go like two armies. I remember having a stick fight with a guy from Richmond, which was so out of character for me because I never had a stick fight in my life. I remember running a goalie. I had 331 penalty minutes in 34 games. There are a lot of memories in those minutes.”
Burnett occasionally donned a black cape with his nickname “Rocky” scripted across the back while roaming Cambria County War Memorial Arena hallways.
The 28-year-old native of Coquitlam, British Columbia, burst onto the NHL scene this season, his 10th as a professional.
Through 28 games, Burnett had two assists and 117 penalty minutes for the Mighty Ducks while establishing himself as one of the league’s tough guys.
“I love that role,” Burnett said from his Anaheim home. “I have a huge love for competition. I think whether it’s going one-on-one with a defenseman and trying to beat him with a shot, battling for a puck in the corner or going for a face-off, the more battles you win, the better chances are for your team to win the game.”
His ascent to the NHL had been a battle for Burnett, who pointed to his season in Johnstown and ties to Fotiu as a turning point.
“I came there because of Nick Fotiu alone,” Burnett said. “He is a mentor to me. To go there and play for him was like a dream come true. I wanted to play the way he played.”
Fotiu played 13 NHL seasons with five teams and was a fan favorite with the New York Rangers. He collected 1,362 penalty minutes and was known for toughness and grit.
Burnett possesses many of the same qualities.
“His desire and determination, that’s what I saw in him,” Fotiu, now an assistant coach of the AHL Hartford Wolfpack, said in a telephone interview.
At Johnstown, Burnett was raw. Fotiu taught him how to be an enforcer yet avoid developing into a one-dimensional player.
“His balance is what improved most,” said Fotiu, who also brought Burnett with him when he was an assistant for two years with AHL Kentucky and last season in Hartford. “That was the big thing, his balance. He could shoot the puck and skate.”
Burnett certainly made the most of his half-season with the Chiefs.
In the short stint with the Chiefs, he amassed an eye-popping 331 penalty minutes and was on pace to break the ECHL single-season record. He also had a goal and two points.
The Johnstown fans loved Burnett, who had his own black and gold T-shirt produced with a caricature of himself sneering on the front and a blood-dripping No. 55 on the back.
The low point of his stay was when the Chiefs fired Fotiu after a 6-20-2 start in the coach’s third straight losing season.
“Garrett’s a very loyal person,” Fotiu said. “When I was let go by the Chiefs, he was the only one that really went nuts. He knew he lost somebody. He said, ‘Now, I’ll never make it to the National Hockey League.’ I said, ‘Don’t say that.’ The next day I was hired by San Jose and I (eventually) brought him with me.”
Scott Allen took over as Chiefs coach and actually increased Burnett’s ice time. The team’s record improved and Burnett was called up to the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms.
“I finished the year out with Philadelphia,” Burnett said. “That all happened because of Nicky, and playing that first half of the year in Johnstown. That was a great experience that enabled me to move up to the AHL and get to the NHL.”
He spent two AHL seasons with Kentucky and one in the former IHL with Cleveland.
Burnett played most of the 2001-02 season with the AHL Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, then rejoined Fotiu in Hartford last season, scoring six goals and seven points while collecting 346 penalty minutes in 62 games.
“Nicky, that was the best connection I ever made,” Burnett said.
His climb to the NHL initially stunned Burnett. But he still wants more.
“The first game I played was in Dallas. I patted myself on the back that night and said I made it,” Burnett said. “Since then it’s been a battle every day to not be content. I’m striving to be a better player, to have a longer stay.”