By MIKE MASTOVICH
Rocky will return to Cambria County War Memorial Arena this evening.
Garrett Burnett, a fan favorite during his 34 mostly memorable and often colorful games with the Johnstown Chiefs, will traverse the halls he once roamed while wearing a black cape with his nickname scripted across the back. Burnett and Somerset County Olympian Sam Sacksen will participate in promotional appearances during the Chiefs’ game against Florida.
Anyone still possessing a black T-shirt with Burnett’s image and a blood-dripping No. 55 certainly remembers this tough guy. The Chiefs and former coach Nick Fotiu helped Burnett work his way to the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks for one season. Rocky was poised to stick in the show a bit longer after securing a one-way NHL deal, but the lockout and a changing climate when the game returned diminished the need for fighters.
Burnett remembers Johnstown and its fans. He’ll appreciate this visit even more because of recent life-threatening events that left him in a coma and resulted in his having to relearn basics we take for granted – walking, talking and eating.
“In my life, I never got to be successful in anything without having sacrifice,” Burnett said Saturday, prior to attending the Pittsburgh Penguins game at Mellon Arena. “This is more adversity. It’s kind of a huge speed bump I’ve got to try to overcome. I feel I can overcome it by being strong and having a strong family on my side.
“Mentally, I will try to live on and not get too caught up in it. Hopefully that will lead me to some better days ahead. The past two years have been pretty miserable to deal with.”
Burnett allegedly was assaulted in the early hours of Dec. 26, 2006 outside of a night club in North Delta, British Columbia.
A group of people Burnett was with became involved in a dispute with another group. After the unfortunate episode, Burnett was left in a coma for 20 days and spent four months in a hospital. For two months he couldn’t walk. Burnett said he continues to have some double vision, as well as nerve damage in his feet and left side of his face.
“I was in a wheel chair and I had to learn to walk again,” Burnett said. “I couldn’t see. Speaking, reading, writing, eating, walking. ... Everything, basically, I had to relearn.”
A War Memorial visit certainly should be good therapy, even though the attendance probably will suffer with the Chiefs playing just as the Steelers game at New England should be winding down.
“I can’t wait to see the city and the rink and to be at a game and see the whole environment,” Burnett said. “With how good you guys treated me, I can’t wait.”
In his 34 games with the Chiefs, Burnett made a smashing impact. He had 331 penalty minutes, a goal and two points. His toughness led to a mid-season call-up to Philadelphia in the AHL, and he stuck.
“I remember when I first got traded to Johnstown and I showed up when training camp was starting,” Burnett said. “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 cape and T-shirts aside, Burnett was easy to spot on the ice because of the physical presence he developed under Fotiu’s tutelage, first in Johnstown and later with Lexington, Ky., and Hartford, Conn., in the AHL.
“Nicky Fotiu was a huge part of me coming to Johnstown,” Burnett said. “He made a deal to get me. I was really encouraged by the fact that he was somebody from the same school of hockey that I was from. He was basically the same kind of player as I am. I felt honored to be able to go out and play for him.”
Fotiu played 13 NHL seasons with five teams and was beloved by the tough-to-please New York Rangers fans. He collected 1,362 penalty minutes.
“He got me ready for the ECHL and for the AHL, and he got me ready to step to the NHL,” Burnett said.
Burnett got his big break in 2003-04 when he appeared in 39 games with the Anaheim Ducks and spent the entire season in the NHL. Just like in Johnstown, the sun-tanned Southern California fans took a liking to Burnett.
Rocky had a goal, three points and 184 penalty minutes during his NHL stay. Oh, yeah. He also participated in 22 fights.
His minor league numbers include 2,562 penalty minutes with 13 different teams.
Burnett never pretended to be a finesse guy. He played his game with no regrets.
But what about that black cape?
“The players in Johnstown figured that they’d get me a cape like the one Killer Carlson wore in his scene in the movie. It had Rocky written on the back. I wasn’t shy about playing it up.”
Welcome back, Rocky, even if you don’t bring the cape.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.