Toto, I don’t think we’re at Colby anymore.
“At Colby, you’ve got a couple hundred fans, some of whom are your friends and some who know you by name from class,” said Burton. “This is different. There’s more pressure. It makes your heart beat a little faster.”
Burton graduated from Colby in May, with a degree in biology with a neuroscience concentration. That would seem an unlikely stepping stone to professional ice hockey, but his stellar hockey career in the highly competitive NESCAC, coupled with key Colby connections to the National Hockey League—and voila! Even before his Colby career had ended, Burton stepped into the world of professional ice hockey.
He is a rookie defenseman for the Fuel, the Indianapolis entry in the 27-team ECHL, the Class AA North American league, and a Chicago Blackhawks farm team. He has quickly discovered that everything about the game—the size of the players, the atmosphere, and the stakes—is much different than it was in Alfond Ice Rink.
For starters, “it’s a business,” he said. “The people in those seats paid to be in those seats. They want to see you win. But even though they want to see you win, you can get booed by those fans. If you’re in the penalty box, don’t look up, because someone might pour a beer on you. That didn’t happen at Middlebury.”
It was just a few months ago that Burton was perched at the point on the Colby power play, firing pucks toward scrambling NESCAC goaltenders. Most memorable was the winter Saturday night in early December at home against Bowdoin, when two of those blasts went in. Burton also had an assist in that game, powering the Mules to a 5-4 victory—after assisting on the tying goal the night before in Colby’s 2-1 win in Brunswick. The Mules’ weekend sweep of their historic rival produced the biggest athletic moment of the year on Mayflower Hill.
This may have been the highlight of Burton’s season, but he said the whole senior season “was like a dream.” He finished with six goals (five on the power play) and 16 assists for 22 points—“nearly a point a game,” he said, proudly but not boastfully—won the outstanding teammate award for the third year in a row, and was named the Mules’ most valuable player. His performance was widely acknowledged; he was named to the All-NESCAC and the DIII All-New England First Team.
“If you’re in the penalty box, don’t look up, because someone might pour a beer on you. That didn’t happen at Middlebury.”—Jack Burton ’17, defenseman for the Indy Fuel hockey team
It all led to an amateur tryout—known as an ATO—with the Fuel last spring. That came about after the star defenseman told the Colby coaching staff in his exit interview that he wanted to keep playing hockey.
Without hesitation, Blaise MacDonald P’18, the Jack Kelley Head Coach, picked up the phone.
The person on the other end was Mark Kelley ’80, a former professional hockey player in Europe, son of iconic Colby coach Jack Kelley, and— most important—now the head of amateur scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League. Kelley, in turn, called Mark Bernard, the general manager of the Rockford (Ill.) IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ affiliate in the Class AAA American Hockey League, who then called Bernie John, the head coach and vice president of hockey operations for the Fuel, the Blackhawks’ farm team the next rung down. Send him out, John said.
“He went out there, got into games, worked hard, and they liked what they saw.”—Mark Kelley ’80, director of amateur scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks
Burton played four games in 10 days, went on a road trip with the team, lived in an apartment in Indianapolis, and “found out what it was like to be a pro.” The Fuel, in turn, found out that the 6-foot-3, 210-pound defenseman was a player they wanted to take a longer look at. So, they offered him a chance to stay for the rest of the season. Burton declined. He wanted to come back to Mayflower Hill and receive his biology degree on Miller Lawn with the rest of his classmates. But he had played well enough to earn an invitation back.
“He went out there, got into games, worked hard, and they liked what they saw,” said Kelley, whose recommendation of Burton was based partly on a favorable scouting report from his father, who, at 90, is in the stands for virtually every Colby home game.
In a conversation early in the season, Burton described his new environment as a bit like Oz. “At Colby, in the pictures, my shoulders were above [the other players’] heads,” he said. “Now, I’m average.
“You see guys across from you who look like monsters. I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m in it.’”
Burton acknowledged the myriad challenges he’s faced adjusting to the pro game. When the AHL IceHogs sent the Fuel a couple of extra defensemen, Burton got left off the roster on an early season road trip to Florida. Along with the bad news, John, the coach, gave Burton a pep talk. “He said he really likes the way I play and the way I’ve been progressing but there’s still a bit to go,” said Burton, who is learning his role as a stay-at-home, “lockdown” defenseman, in MacDonald’s term, rather than the more offense-minded game he played for Colby.
“I’ll get my chances as they come,” Burton said.
“At Colby, in the pictures, my shoulders were above [the other players’] heads. Now, I’m average. You see guys across from you who look like monsters. I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m in it.’”—Jack Burton ’17
They began to come more regularly as the cold weather arrived, and as Burton added another piece to his game, one that isn’t tolerated in the college game—fighting. In a game against Toledo, Burton went toe to toe with the Walleye’s Austen Brassard, who, with more than 50 career fights, has a reputation for dropping his gloves. “We exchanged blows for maybe all of five seconds before he punched me so square in the nose that my knees just buckled,” Burton said. His nose bleeding, the rookie was escorted to the locker room to be attended to by the medical staff but got pats on the backs from his teammates on the way.
“He made short work of me,” said Burton, “but the coaches were impressed that I had the chutzpah to grab one of their tough guys.” Said MacDonald, “I don’t think the physicality [of pro hockey] will be a problem for Jack.”
Simply having any chance to play the game he loves for money—he brings home $500 a week—is almost more than Burton could have imagined when he was skating for St. Paul’s School in his hometown of Baltimore, where lacrosse, not hockey, is the ruling sport. “I kind of envisioned it as a kid,” he said, “but I never thought it would come to fruition.”
But there he is, living in his own apartment, going to practice in the morning (when the pros practice), doing what young professionals do, well beyond the level that most college athletes ever achieve.
Said Kelley, “He’s living his dream.”
Images courtesy of Indy Fuel Hockey.