Your trusty correspondent has long maintained that the Sudbury Wolves are the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Ontario League. Both teams play in hockey-mad markets where the love of the team is unconditional regardless of how good or bad they are. Both have had long periods of dysfunctionality, punctuated by short bursts of promise and hope. But for the most part, both teams have given their long-suffering fans too little to cheer about for too long.
In fact, it might even be worse in Sudbury than it is in Toronto. The Leafs are closing in on 50 years since their last Stanley Cup. The most recent and only time the Sudbury Wolves have won the Memorial Cup was 1932. So you’d have to be close to 90 years old to even have a faint recollection of what it was like to experience this team winning something. (And pre-season junior club tournaments in Russia don’t count.)
We mention this because of news that Connor Burgess, an 18-year-old left winger, has quit the Sudbury Wolves to devote himself full-time to his university studies. Seems like a smart choice, since Burgess won the Ivan Tennant Memorial Award as the league’s top academic high school player in 2012-13 and had zero goals and three assists in 95 career OHL games with the Wolves.
News like this usually doesn’t make headlines, nor do players such as Burgess. But when the player involved is the son of the team owner and by almost all accounts has been out of his element as an OHL player since the day he stepped into the league as a 16-year-old, it signals a willingness on the part of the team to close one of the most dysfunctional chapters in its long history.
Connor Burgess is, by almost all accounts, a really good kid who was placed in an untenable situation. Despite the fact most teams didn’t even see him as a prospect in the spring of 2012, the team traded a second- and fourth-round pick to obtain a third-round pick to take him. The Wolves then signed Burgess, and gave him the full post-season education package before playing him in 28 games as a 16-year-old.
It was clear from the start that Burgess was in far over his head. But even as the years progressed, it became clear to the scouting community and those who watch the team regularly that Burgess simply did not have the tools to be an OHL player. Last season as a second year player, he played on the fourth line and things had simmered down somewhat in terms of criticism. But this season, Burgess had been elevated to the third line and had seen some power play and penalty killing time. In a recent 8-2 loss to the Owen Sound Attack, Burgess was on the ice for four goals against, including two where he was killing penalties and collided twice with teammates.
“There was no doubt about it - this kid did not belong in the OHL,” said one NHL scout. “He couldn’t keep up. He couldn’t handle the pace. He never should have been in the league in the first place.”
“He just didn’t have it,” another scout said. “He didn’t have a grasp of the basic fundamentals and he was a really awkward skater. He couldn’t play in the league as a rookie and he never really got any better.”
So why did this happen? Why did Connor Burgess play 95 games in a league where he clearly didn’t belong? How did he get a scholarship package that is usually only reserved for star players? Well, consider this fact. His father, Mark, is the owner of the team. The Burgess family, a lynchpin in the local business community, has owned the Wolves for more than two decades. It was first purchased by his father, Ken, in 1986 and was taken over by Mark after his father died in 1998.
It has been an open secret among people in hockey circles that Mark foisted his son upon the team and used his influence as an owner to give his son the opportunity to play in the league. And with the Wolves off to a 1-7-0 start this season and the fan base getting very vocal in social media, the experiment with Connor Burgess ended.
But there has been carnage. The team’s director of scouting, who apparently threatened to quit in the midst of the 2012 draft in which Connor Burgess was selected, left the organization a couple of months later. Coaches and assistant coaches, seemingly with their hands tied and having to play a player who didn’t deserve to be in the lineup, crossed swords with the owner and also left the organization.
The Wolves, meanwhile, put out a terse media release with the news of Connor Burgess’s retirement and said they would have no further comment. GM Blaine Smith did not return a call from thn.com seeking comment. An email to the team’s marketing department seeking comment from Mark Burgess was not returned. (It should be noted that Burgess is not the first owner or GM-coach in the league to have his own son play for him. In fact, when Burgess owned the team, GM-coach Mike Foligno had both his sons, Nick and Marcus playing for him. But both of them have gone on to play in the NHL.)
As the younger Burgess devotes himself full-time to his studies, the Wolves will now be without one of their biggest on- and off-ice distractions.
“It’s too bad because he’s a really good kid and was liked by his teammates,” a scout said. “His father should have never put him in that position.”