From the Archives: Hanging up his whistle

EDGE is taking some holiday time, from December 20 to January 4. While we’re off we’ll be re-running some of our favourite stories from the year, and some hits from deep in our archives. Here’s a portrait of a much-loved city character from June 2013:

Sir John’s beloved gym teacher and long-time YK hockey hero, Bill Burlington is retiring after 31 years.

by Katie Weaver

“Bur-ly! Bur-ly! Bur-ly!…” The chant fills the arena’s stands at Yellowknife’s annual Challenge Cup, a hockey rivalry between Sir John and St Pat’s high schools. Burly hasn’t scored a goal, nor is Burly even playing, so why is the crowd going wild? Behind Sir John’s bench, gym teacher and coach Bill Burlington, “Burly,” has to be prodded out onto the ice to acknowledge his teenage fans. They know this is his last Challenge Cup. Throughout the years, Burly has gained their complete respect, whether it’s on the ice, on the basketball or volleyball court, soccer field, track, or in the classroom.

“Yeah, that is pretty special,” Burly says, remembering those cheers after last November’s win. “You don’t want your head to get too wrapped up with that kind of applause, but yeah, that was pretty special.”

After 31 years of teaching in the North, Burly, “a legend in his time,” is retiring.

This legend started off in Owen Sound, Ont. in 1952. With good marks (especially in public speaking) and good work habits, young Bill sailed through his schooling. Not only gifted with brains, he was gifted with athletic talent. Born into hockey, he grew up meeting his Dad’s buds in the kitchen, who also happened to be professional hockey players.

In an interview during an early Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, Maurice “Rocket” Richard told Canada he thought the best player he’d ever seen play the game was Tommy Burlington, Bill’s father. He was signed in the American Hockey League with the Cleveland Barons and created numerous scoring records. But before Tommy could make it to the NHL, there was a rule passed declaring that no one with vision in only one eye may play (Tommy had lost sight in one eye in a childhood accident); however, he was said to have a name that belonged with Orr, Howe and Gretzky. It would be natural to think Tommy would pressure his son to follow in his footsteps, but contrarily, he never coached Bill, or drove him to, or watched a full game. Tommy, who retired from hockey by the time his son was four, let Bill form his own passion for the sport: Bill walked to his games, played without parent interference (as long as he behaved) and played at every chance possible.

His dedication led him to excel on Boston University’s hockey team, and exposed him to a year of hockey in Europe, and senior level play with The Cambridge Hornets, the Barrie Flyers and the Durham Huskies. Burly dreamed of winning an Allan Cup (this goes to the winners of the best amateur hockey team in the country), like his Dad had done in the early ‘50s. While playing his final season with the Durham Huskies, Burly suffered a major injury. He was looking for his fifth goal of the game when an opponent slashed him from the side directly on his jaw, breaking it in seven places. Before Burly’s jaw was reconnected, his father visited him in the hospital. While his Dad did not have much to do with his hockey career, he did guide him through his major life decisions. Tommy Burlington was a man of tough love.

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“He told me I was going nowhere and I was going to be a hockey bum,” recalls Burly. “I took his words to heart.” He let go of his dreams of winning the Allan Cup and began to pursue a teaching career. Tommy had given Burly a push in the direction where he would soon spend the next three decades of his life.

Once Burly was ready to settle down with Cheryl, his girlfriend at the time, he arrived in Pine Point, Northwest Territories, in the fall of 1981.

“Most people who come North are usually looking for some kind of adventure,” Burly explains. “I don’t know too many of my friends in Southern Ontario who would seek the kind of adventure the North has to offer — battling the black flies while swinging a golf club, trying to start your car at 40 below, going fishing in the middle of summer with a winter parka under the seat of the boat.” But Cheryl was ready for it. They married in ’83, and by ’86 they were in Yellowknife ready to tackle their careers, his as a physical education teacher at Sir John Franklin High School and hers as a teacher in Yellowknife primary schools.

They fit in nicely. Burly won senior hockey at Arctic Winter Games three consecutive times with the Hay River Huskies, as well as playing with the competitive team, the Weaver & Devore Marauders.

recent portrait by Pat Kane

“He was an amazing hockey player, a man with never-ending energy,” his old teammate, Ken Weaver, remembers. “He always showed a lot of grit, he was a hockey player that never really lost his composure. I mean, we could be losing a hockey game and maybe he’d be getting extra checking — they’d be paying extra attention to him because he was such a good player — and they would knock him down but he wouldn’t be comin’ to fight you or swing a stick at you. He just thought, ‘I’m gonna get up, I’m gonna come down on ya, I’ll go around ya and I’ll beat you.’ Those are the kind of things that I remember about Billy.”

For several years, Burly was living the dream. He had the perfect job, a loving wife, and was dominating in hockey. In his 40s, he suffered a major groin injury, which sparked a downward spiral of physical setbacks. Near the year 2000, Burly was diagnosed with bone spurs on his hip joint. He had many tests done, and at first was told he may have bone cancer. It turns out, thankfully, he just had many bone deformities due to his years of playing hockey. His doctor told him he would probably need a hip replacement by the time he was 65, a prediction that was out by about 10 years. Burly came to the sad realization that “my competitive days were still there in my mind, but not my body.”

He played with the Marauders until he no longer could, at 53 years old. Hockey was too much in his blood to abandon it permanently, though. Burly moved on from being a great player to being an even better coach.

He has proudly led the Sir John Falcons to victory 14 times against the St. Pat’s Irish in the annual Challenge Cup game. Burly was especially proud of the 2012 boys’ team effort.

“We had a lot of senior players who were out for revenge after being shellacked by the Irish last year. That was fine with me.” Burly says. His relationships with his hockey players have been some of the tightest.

“Good ol’ Burls!” says 2011 graduate and former player Zander Affleck. “From all his great stories and speeches to his ability to be full of energy at every early Challenge Cup practice, the man is a one-of-a-kind legend.”

Burly also led the girls’ team to a staggering 13-2 victory, their first since 2007. Kassidy Blampied, graduating this year and a veteran of being coached by Burly, says, “Even when you suck and you finally get what he’s trying to show you in a drill, he gets so excited and it makes you feel so good. I will definitely miss Burly.”

Assistant principal Al McDonald, a colleague since 1986, notices how Burly teaches more than just sports. “He always coached making sure the kids had sportsmanship. It wasn’t so much winning, it was doing the right thing. He’s built the Falcons of Sir John into a legend in the N.W.T. and probably the rest of Canada.”

It can be said on behalf of both teams that they had more desire than ever to make Burly proud for his last year at Sir John. During his 27 years at the school, he’s made the students feel special.

“He’s always been my favourite teacher and a mentor to me,” says Brayden Cogdale, who graduated last year. Burly’s famous nicknames are undoubtedly part of what keeps student-teacher connections so strong. Once bestowed, they’re permanent. Madison Hurst’s “Mad-dog” has stuck with him years later.

Burly makes any student feel significant by letting them know they always have a place on a sports team. There are two twins in this year’s graduating class, Levi “Light ‘Em Up,” and Calvin “Not So Bad,” Rossouw, who were hockey newbies, but showed up to all the early morning Challenge Cup practices with enthusiasm. Burly called them the “True Grit” line and they each got playing time on Challenge Cup day to reward them for their energy and dedication.

“He’s always got a ‘yes’ for everybody,” says McDonald. “He’s got a big heart.”

Throughout all his years at Sir John, from acting and dancing in the Drama Department’s performance of Grease, to singing along to Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together in the girls’ soccer bus, Burly has never stopped including everybody. But retirement is bringing that to an end. Burly is finally ready to go back home to Owen Sound and buy a house with Cheryl.

Burly dancing in Grease with Sir John students.

After winning a soccer championship in Hay River.

“My wife can be pretty fussy in what she likes and doesn’t like. Remember though, I’m not much good at fixing things,” he says about house hunting. Burly plans on keeping busy back in Ontario: long bike rides in the summer, playing hockey with his old pals in the winter, volunteering, and even making himself a bucket list.

“I’d like to play a lot of golf and finally start enjoying my Sundays a little more, knowing that I won’t be going to work on Monday morning. Yahoo!” Burly is particularly intent on travelling, as he has always told his wife he would take her to Boston. “It’s time to hold true on that promise.”

Regardless of what Burly decides to do, I will always remember him as a true character: gregarious, well-seasoned, and as our principal said in an assembly my first year of high school, “the gym teacher who can’t say no to two things — chocolate cake and more time on the mic.”

When asked about the characters he’s come across in the North, Burly told me, “My definition of a character is someone who is true to himself, doesn’t have any pretenses and can be counted on in a time of need. With that kind of thinking there are a lot of characters in the North, that’s for sure… they come from all walks of life and I have had the pleasure to have some of them as close friends over the past 31 years.”

Using his own definition, I’m sure, like me, many people will remember Bill Burlington as one of the most legendary characters ever to come to Yellowknife.

Katie was born and raised in Yellowknife. An aspiring writer and editor, she graduates from Sir John High School this year and plans on attending University of Victoria in September. Katie has always relished being taught by Mr. Burlington, and was honoured to write a feature about him and his impact on her fellow Northern students.



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