By Kevin Woodley
Alex Burrows’ unlikely climb from undrafted and unknown in the East Coast League to first-line National Hockey League goal scorer has been well documented and widely celebrated. But Burrows knows he is the exception, not the rule.
For proof he needs look no further than the centre feeding him pucks with the Columbus Inferno in 2003-04. Tim Smith actually posted better numbers than his winger in the ECHL that season - 33 goals and 95 points compared to Burrows’ 29 goals and 73 points. But six years later, while Burrows was leading the Canucks with 35 goals, Smith tied for the scoring title in the Asian Hockey League.
“I tease him being the tallest guy over there and he can finally pretend he’s tough," Burrows says of the 5-foot-9 Smith, who also had stints in Switzerland and Germany. “He was a great player and helped me a lot throughout my career, but now he’s making decent money playing the game he loves in Asia."
Smith, whose skill was never quite enough to overcome his size, is one of the few players Burrows keeps in touch with from those days, in part because the three ECHL teams he played for have all since folded. Of 36 teammates from his rookie season, only seven even made it to the AHL, and only two stayed for more than a handful of games. Several played overseas, but most careers went nowhere. Or the middle of nowhere: one guy played for 12 teams in six lower minor-pro leagues.
The widely divergent career paths provide a perfect cautionary tale – not just for undrafted late-bloomers hoping to follow Burrows to the NHL, but also for kids (and parents) across Canada dreaming of big leagues and bigger paydays.
For every feel-good story like Burrows’, there are 35 others that never get told because they never get out of the minor leagues, thousands more who never even make it out of junior or college, and tens of thousands that don’t even get past minor hockey. Even Burrows came within a few months of such anonymity.
Smith was the one chosen by Vancouver in the ninth round of the 2000 draft after a 96-point season in the Western Hockey League. Burrows didn’t even play major junior until he was 19, so when he left home two years later to play for the Greenville Grrrowl in the ECHL, he was realistic about his NHL dreams. When he started his third pro season back in the ECHL, Burrows decided to give himself half the year before calling it a career and getting on with real life.
“I was going to go back to school at Christmas if I was still there, but good thing that never came," said Burrows, who was called back up after just four games, and one year later earned his first NHL contract with the Canucks.