(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Codey Burki has decided it’s time for the next thing.
The former Brandon Wheat Kings forward sustained a serious concussion in October 2015 after taking an elbow in practice and then hitting his head on the boards a day later with EHC Olten in Ligue Nationale B in Switzerland, and has not played since. The 29-year-old married father of two, who lives in Lethbridge, Alta., has come to terms with the difficult realization that the risk is now too great to continue as he occasionally still encounters post-concussion symptoms.
“I’ve kind of made my decision now,” he said. “I think I’m done. I’m still on contract with the team I was on until April so I’ll really have to make a final decision at that time. In my mind, I think it’s over. I’ve had a few concussions now and I could play another seven or eight years I’m sure, but is it worth it if I get another one?”
It’s 15 years since the Wheat Kings picked Burki 15th overall in the 2002 Western Hockey League bantam draft. The team also selected his future teammates Ryan Reaves, Tyler Plante, Mark Louis, Daryl Boyle and Theran Yeo that day.
Brandon felt like a natural fit for him.
“I went to a lot of Wheat Kings games with my dad, especially when they would come to Winnipeg,” he said. “Back then they came once a year to the old Winnipeg Arena and we would go watch them and we made a few trips to Brandon. I knew about them very well and obviously going into the bantam draft you don’t know where you’re going to end up. When I heard I was drafted to the Wheat Kings I was pretty excited about that because it was close to home and it was the team that I recognized the most.”
Burki put his 15-year-old season to good use, scoring 37 goals and adding 40 assists with the Winnipeg Midget AAA Warriors, finishing among the league leaders. Soon he found himself at Wheat Kings camp looking to earn a full-time job in the WHL, still at age 15 because of his November birthday.
“I was pretty nervous, but in the back of my mind I knew I went in the first round, so that was a little bit of a comfort thing for me knowing that I was a player they were going to want at some point,” he said. “But obviously as soon as you step on the ice there’s the nervousness that comes with it, and once you actually make the team you realize, OK, I have to live away from home and away from my folks and friends and other family and that kind of hits home really quick.”
In the 2003-04 season, Burki went from a front-line player in midget to a member of the Wheat Kings’ supporting cast. He was a healthy scratch some nights, scoring once and adding 11 assists on a team then led by 18-year-olds, Eric Fehr and Ryan Stone.
“I found myself watching them quite a bit, whether it was on the ice or off the ice,” Burki said. “The things they would do when they were sitting in their stall, putting their equipment on, tying their skates, the music they would listen to and put on in the dressing room, the way they trained. For me, that was how I learned was by watching these guys because you do look up to them. You see how much respect the team has for them, you see how much they play, you see how much the fans like them and it’s automatic. That’s where you want to be eventually.”
It was another matter on the ice, at least initially. The six-foot-one, 180-pound youngster found it intimidating to be playing against 20-year-olds who looked like full-grown men to him.
“It was nerve-racking to step on the ice with guys like that,” he said. “I came from Winnipeg and it really wasn’t that difficult, the midget league I played in. I was one of the biggest guys on the ice. Now you’re playing against these men, which is how you see them and it’s a totally different ballgame. You have to keep your head up; you’re worried about that for the first couple of months. ‘Am I going to get laid out tonight? Is somebody going to hurt me?’
“Those are things I thought about for the first month or two. I don’t know if every guy thinks about that, but it was certainly eye-opening.”
Burki was chosen to play with Team Western in the 2003 World Under-17 Challenge, notching three points in five games against the best young players his own age.
Along with his growth on the ice, Burki also faced the challenges of growing up in the spotlight away from home.
“I tell a lot of people how quickly you’re forced to grow up when you’re with the Wheat Kings or in junior hockey in general,” he said. “You go from being a punk kid to all of a sudden really having to take care of yourself, start working out and start being accountable to other people, and to start being aware of your nutrition and really taking care of your body while your friends, who left wherever you come from, are still partying every weekend. You’re focusing on playing good hockey and getting somewhere.”
In the final three years of his career he was remarkably healthy, missing just eight of 216 regular season games. He was another Wheat King who improved every year he played, finishing up with a pair of terrific campaigns.
In his 18-year-old season in 2005-06, Burki recorded 27 goals and 34 assists and, since he was a late birthday, was taken in the second round of the 2006 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche. A year later he led the team with 36 goals and 49 assists, playing the most with Reeves and Mark Derlago, but also with Juraj Simek, as the Wheat Kings captured the East Division title.
Burki said his progression as a player came with maturing physically and growing in confidence. But opportunity also helped.
“Every year I got a little more ice time,” he said. “The first couple of years we had really good teams, so I really didn’t play a whole bunch … With ice time comes confidence and with confidence comes production.”
Burki found himself starting all over again when he turned pro in his 20-year-old season.
After spending three seasons in the North Americans minors, Burki chose to head to Switzerland, his family’s ancestral homeland, for the final six seasons of his career.
“It was kind of tough because I didn’t have a lot of success with the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL like I wanted to do,” he said. “Things didn’t turn out, I didn’t play a whole bunch. When the opportunity in Switzerland came, I took it. I just didn’t see the light as far as making the NHL, which was obviously the ultimate goal. Maybe it would have happened, I don’t know, if I had gone to a different team, but it’s hard to say. For me, in Switzerland the financial security was there and it was still great hockey and it was a chance to see my roots.”
He found the move to Switzerland to be an easy transition, since English is widely spoken. He was dating his wife Tielle at the time, so she would visit, and after they were married and son Jett, 3, and daughter Elle, 1, were born, they lived there as a family.
While his NHL dreams weren’t in the cards, Burki is satisfied with his effort.
“I like how it went,” Burki said of his career. “I did everything I could to be as good a player as I could have been. For me, there are no regrets. I made the right decision going over to Switzerland. Maybe had I not been drafted to Colorado and to a different team, who knows how that would have played out. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone to Switzerland and maybe things would have turned out in North America. I don’t know. But you play with the cards you’re dealt. When I look back, I don’t have any regrets at all. It sucks to have these concussions but I got nine or 10 years out of it.
“I’ll take it.”
The family settled in his wife’s hometown of Lethbridge, where they have lived for the past eight summers while he was still playing.
Burki hasn’t settled on what he’ll do next, delaying the decision after his current hockey deal ends in April.
“Everyday life is pretty normal,” Burki said. “I get a headache every once in a while whereas before I was getting them every day. If I go into the gym and try to train like I did back then, it’s not happening.”
Burki hasn’t been to too many Hurricanes games — “I’ve seen it before” he chuckles — but like his dad before him, he expects to start going when Jett is older.
The Burkis were in Brandon last summer, when they stopped on their way to see his parents in Winnipeg to visit his old billets, Don and Mona Halls, who he said remain like family to him and helped make his Brandon experience a good one.
He said hockey was never the same after he left the Wheat Kings.
“It’s another eye-opener,” Burki admitted. “You get comfortable with junior hockey and where you are and the rhythm, and then you’re thrown into a whole new thing where you’re getting paid and trying to keep your job, so there’s that extra added stress that comes with that. I think once it turns into a job it’s not as fun anymore. It’s more business-like.
“Junior was the most fun I ever had playing hockey and I’ll tell anybody that, just because there was no money involved in it.”