Apr. 15—Garrett Burnett only spent 34 games with the Johnstown Chiefs, but half of an ECHL season was all the likable 6-foot-3 enforcer needed to become a hockey icon in a city that loves its blue-collar players.
His nickname, Rocky, was scripted across the back of a long black cape Burnett regularly wore in the locker room on game days and in the hallways after practice — a nod to actor Jerry Houser’s character Dave “Killer” Carlson in the movie “Slap Shot .”
Burnett could fight with the best of the tough guys throughout his lengthy career in the minors. He even earned a reputation as a solid pugilist during his one National Hockey League season with the Anaheim Ducks in 2003-04.
His NHL career was interrupted by a lockout season, then an injury, and eventually a changing game that didn’t rely as heavily on players known mainly for fighting skills.
Burnett died on Monday at age 46. No cause of death was listed in reports that circulated online, including a story by The Hockey News.
Regardless of the cause, Rocky is gone too soon.
‘A great fighter’
“Here is a guy who willed himself into the National Hockey League,” said Hershey Bears coach Scott Allen, who was an assistant to then-Johnstown Chiefs coach Nick Fotiu at the outset of the 1997-98 season and took on head coaching duties midseason .
“‘Burnie’ made himself into a capable player and he was a great fighter.”
Fotiu was in his third season with the Chiefs when he traded popular captain Ryan Petz to the Pee Dee Pride for Burnett heading into the 1997-98 training camp.
Initially, Burnett later was supposed to be shipped to the Raleigh IceCaps to honor an earlier commitment, but he liked Fotiu — a former beloved New York Rangers tough guy. Rocky decided to stay in Johnstown.
“I had been approached by Raleigh, and I had committed to go to them,” Burnett said in an October 1997 interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “My team down in Pee Dee had a disagreement with Raleigh and tried to bargain to get more out of the deal. That’s how Johnstown become involved.
“When I talked to Nick, I realized he’s the kind of guy I want to play for. He wants what’s best for the players and that’s the kind of coach I need right now, especially a coach like him who’s played the same style I play He’s been where I want to go.”
Rocky made it there, too. But it was a long road.
In his 34 games with the Chiefs, Burnett had 331 penalty minutes and appeared to be a lock to break the franchise single-season PIM mark. But he was called up to the Philadelphia Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate and stuck with the minor-league team in Philly.
“I had a special relationship with Burnie because we actually played against each other my last year of playing and then a couple years later, I was coaching him,” said Allen, who replaced Fotiu as the Chiefs head coach in December 1997. “I ‘m extremely proud to say we got him his first call-up to the American Hockey League when Paul Holmgren called and he got an opportunity to go to Philadelphia in the American (Hockey) League.
“Nick Fotiu had planted the seed to (Philadelphia’s) Paul Holmgren about Garrett. Out of the blue, he reached out to me — and the rest is history.”
’58 games, 506 PIMs’
The Coquitlam, British Columbia, native had an incredible 506 penalty minutes in 58 regular-season games with the Kentucky Thoroughblades in the AHL in 1999-2000. Stints in the International League, AHL and United Hockey League preceded his call to the NHL with Anaheim.
In 39 NHL games in 2003-04, Burnett had a goal, two assists and 184 penalty minutes with Anaheim.
The next season’s NHL lockout led to a seven-game stay as a player-assistant coach with the Danbury Thrashers in the UHL in 2004-05. He only played 10 AHL games the following season and never made it back to the NHL.
Burnett’s life took a terrible turn in December 2006, when he sustained injuries that left him in a coma for 20 days after a dispute between two groups of people allegedly turned violent at a night club in British Columbia.
Burnett reportedly suffered brain trauma. He had to relearn how to do basic tasks we all take for granted.
When Rocky returned to Johnstown for an appearance at a Chiefs game in November 2008, he expressed appreciation for his time at the War Memorial.
“In my life, I never got to be successful in anything without having sacrifice,” Burnett said in an interview coinciding with his Johnstown appearance in 2008. “This is more adversity. It’s kind of a huge speed bump I’ve got to try to overcome.”
Burnett signed autographs and posed for photos that night almost 14 years ago. He talked about his cape from him. He mentioned the memorable black T-shirts sold during his season here — the ones featuring his image of him on the front and a gold No. 55 dripping in blood on the back of him.
Mostly, I have spoken of his experience with the Chiefs.
“I remember when I first got traded to Johnstown and I showed up when training camp was starting,” Burnett said in 2008. “Somebody asked me, ‘What should we expect from Garrett Burnett because we traded away our team captain for you?’ I said, ‘Have you guys seen the movie “Slap Shot?” Expect to see three Hanson Brothers in one fight.’ “
His ability to use his fists and intimidate the opposition is legendary in Johnstown — and probably other cities he played in. But Rocky was more than just a tough guy.
“Back then, you had guys that worked at the craft,” Allen said. “He is a guy who for sure worked at that craft. He made himself into a capable player and an extremely good fighter. I give him a ton of credit. He knew what he wanted to do and he knew how to get it. He did it at the ECHL level, then the American (Hockey) League, and then, the National Hockey League.
“There was one way he was going to do it and he was more than willing. I have a ton of respect for what he did and how he did it.”