Tommy Burlington: the Greatest North American hockey player never to play in the NHL captured scoring titles in every league that he played, bringing comparisons to NHL greats.
In November 1999, I received a telephone call from former Boston Bruin and Owen Sound Mercury, Pat McReavy. He told me that Tommy Burlington would like me to interview him and that I should call him that night. I called the number and spoke to Mr. Burlington. He suggested that I visit him the next evening.
Tommy Burlington - Paul White Sports Photograph Collection
What was so surprising, and exciting about this information was that Tommy Burlington, the hockey player that many considered to be the best to never skate in the NHL had refused all media interview requests since the 1960s. And now, he was honouring me with the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his amazing hockey career. What follows is the result of that meeting.
My father and I watched many hockey games together and one thing never changed. Whenever I remarked that a certain player seems to have the ability to become a great player, my dad always said, “Well maybe, but, he’s not as good as Tommy Burlington!”
My father is not the only one who holds such a high opinion of Tommy Burlington’s hockey skills. During the past few years I have travelled to many parts of Ontario and the United States as a freelance hockey historian and reporter. On many occasions, former players, reporters, and hockey historians, once they found out that I was from Owen Sound, invariably asked me if I knew Tommy Burlington, or if I had seen him play. When I, in turn asked the same question of them, the response was always the same. “Tommy Burlington was one of the best!”
Tommy Burlington was born on August 8, 1920 in the Mount Dennis area of Toronto. He played minor hockey in his home area until 1939 when he came to Owen Sound to play junior hockey with the Greys. The next season, 1940-41, he played for the Owen Sound Wreckers.
In 1941-42 he played for the Atlantic City Seagulls of the Eastern Hockey League. He stayed in Atlantic City for only one season. But what a season! He terrorized opposition goaltenders, setting a league scoring record with 65 goals and 66 assists.
Burlington’s scoring prowess and play making ability had come to the attention of the Cleveland Barons of the AHL. He joined that club for the 1942-43 season where one of his team mates was Owen Sound native Norm Locking. The rookie finished fifth in scoring on the Barons that season scoring 12 goals and assisting on 31 others.
In his second season with the Barons, Burlington became an AHL star. Coach “Bun” Cook put him on a line with Lou Trudel and Earl Barthelome and the three became a potent scoring threat. Former Barons’ team mate Whitey Prokop speaking in later years described Tommy as “the Wayne Gretzky of his day”. In only his second season, the 23-year-old Burlington led his team in scoring with 33 goals and 49 assists as Cleveland finished first in the AHL Western Division. Burlington was selected to the AHL All Star team and also set a league record by scoring points in 24 consecutive games.
Burlington’s scoring feats are even more phenomenal when you consider that he only had vision in one eye due to a childhood accident. Tommy’s scoring abilities came to the attention of the Chicago Black Hawks of the NHL. But before he could play in that league a rule was passed blocking players with vision in only one eye from playing in that league. It was Conn Smythe the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs who supposedly proposed this rule. Despite the fact that this rule kept Tommy from fulfilling a dream of playing in the NHL he holds no malice towards Smythe. He said, “I never held it against him because he was good for hockey and he did a great deal for crippled children.”
The next season, 1944-45, Burlington scored 30 goals and 60 assists and led the Barons to not only another first place finish in their division but also to the Calder Cup Championship.
In the 1945-46 season Tommy’s team had a new goaltender, 21-year-old Johnny Kiszkan (he later changed his name to Johnny Bower), who, in the 1960s would become the backbone of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once again Burlington led the team in scoring. Despite his scoring abilities and his popularity with the Cleveland fans Tommy was traded at the end of the season to the Providence Reds. The Cleveland media and fans were outraged at this loss of one of the most popular players in the history of that franchise.
After the 1946-47 season, Tommy decided to return to Owen Sound and play hockey for the Mercurys. However, his release from the AHL was blocked. In order to raise the money to buy his release, the Mercurys held a raffle for a car.
Burlington became an important part of the powerful Mercurys team. In 1950-51 the Mercurys captured the Allan Cup. During the next few years Owen Sound was a dominant force in Senior hockey. The 1953-54 team may have been the greatest of all the Mercury teams according to sports writers, fans, and players of that era but they did not win the Canadian Championship. The reason was simple. With only a few games left in the season Tommy was on a pace to shatter the OHA scoring record, instead he broke his leg and missed the rest of the season and the playoffs. The Mercurys were successful in the first rounds of the play offs but in the Ontario finals against Sudbury the absence of their great scorer was too much and the Mercurys were eliminated from further play.
During his era in Owen Sound, Tommy attracted considerable attention. On one occasion, one of the greatest hockey coaches of all time, Punch Imlach made the trek to Owen Sound from Quebec City where he was then coaching Jean Beliveau. The reason for Imlach’s trip was simple. He was trying to convince Tommy to leave the Mercurys and play for the Quebec Aces. Punch told Tommy, “If you sign with me, I’ll have the best three centres in amateur hockey, Jean Beliveau, Tommy Burlington and Herb Carnegie!”
Burlington chose to remain in Owen Sound on this occasion and every time someone tried to lure him away. He said “I had enough of travelling and my wife is from Owen Sound. And, I always liked Owen Sound. The fans were great sports fans and they knew their hockey.”
I asked Tommy what he considered to be his greatest hockey skills. Tommy said, “I think stickhandling and scoring goals, I guess, but (former team mate) Pat McReavy said I never did much backchecking.” Burlington said that “today if you can skate and you’re big, you can play in the NHL, they’ll take a chance (on you) anyway.”
Tommy Burlington may not have been the biggest guy on the ice, but he was strong. Former team mate "Red" Leckie recalled a game in Windsor when Tommy broke in around the defense, “one of the Windsor forwards jumped on Tommy’s back about half way to the goal, to try and bring him down, but Tom skated on towards the net and put the puck up into the top corner with the Windsor player still on his back. I couldn’t believe his determination to score under such conditions. But that was Tommy Burlington!”
Leckie went on to say “I had the privilege of playing left wing on Burlington’s line for a while, and repeatedly he would shift the goalie right out of the net, and just push the puck over to me, to put the puck into the empty net. My scoring statistics sure increased when I played with Burlington!”
For years the mystique and magic of Tommy Burlington have dominated discussions among long time hockey fans and media people about the greatest players of all time. I asked Ted Briggs, former Owen Sound Sun Times sports editor, who saw Burlington play for many seasons his opinion. Briggs said, “Tommy Burlington is the best player that I ever saw play hockey”!
It was a privilege to meet Tommy Burlington. After interviewing several people who had either reported on his games, played with him or against him, or had cheered his moves from the stands, I could only come to one conclusion. Tommy Burlington’s name belongs with Gretzky, Howe and Orr and the other legends of the game!
NOTE: Tommy Burlington passed away on January 17, 2000 after a long battle with "Lou Gehrig's Disease".
A version of this story appeared on the front page of the Owen Sound Sun Times in November 1999.
For more information about Owen Sound's hockey history, check out my latest hockey book, Journey Through Owen Sound's Hockey History.
The 1920s Owen Sound Hockey Stars made there mark in amateur ranks and then many of them went on to careers in the NHL and other professional hockey leagues.
The 1927 Owen Sound Greys with a priest serving as coach named Jack Spratt and not one experienced defenseman were an unlikely Canadian National Hockey Championship team.
Benny Grant: Memorial Cup Champ grew up in Owen Sound and enjoyed a hockey career, which included a surprising turn of events that led to a stint in the NHL.
"Buck" Jones, like most Canadian boys, dreamed of playing in the NHL. Little did he realize that one day he would wear the sweater of an NHL club and would be the idol of youngsters like himself!
The Chin Brothers dominated in their hockey league which drew attention from the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ralph "Cooney" Weiland skated from a Memorial Cup championship in Owen Sound, to a Stanley Cup in Boston to fame as a U.S. college hockey coach.
The Crescent Club has a long history of sponsoring sports teams and leagues in Owen Sound providing consistent management and financial assistance to athletics.
"Cyclone" Taylor was hockey's first superstar. Born in Tara Ontario, he was involved in a controversy in Ottawa which still has not been resolved.
Doug Brindley: From Maple Draft Choice to a role in Slap Shot: a Memorial Cup champ; coached by Don Cherry; and he played in the WHA; what more could a Walkerton Ontario native ask for in a hockey career?
The Durham Yellowjackets hockey team was a force to be reckoned with in Ontario Intermediate hockey in the 1930s.
Goalie "Red" Henry: An All-Star Netminder: Another great Owen Sound goalie who played for the love of the game.
"Hap" Day was a Hall of Fame hockey player, coach and general manager as well as a life-long Toronto Maple Leaf.
Norm Locking Chicago Black Hawks & Former Owen Sound Grey was known for his hard and deadly shot in Al Capone's Chicago.
Harry Lumley spent his Hall of Fame hockey career tending the nets for four NHL clubs and he spent one period of a hockey game goaltending for a fifth NHL team.
Henry Kelso: Owen Sound Sports Legend not only contributed to the sporting life of his students, he also had a significant influence on the rest of their lives.
Junior Hockey Commentary: Should there be controversy about the use of non-local hockey players? This article was written in 1998 in response to a letter to the editor in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
Meaford Knights Hockey: The 1953-54 Championship Knights' line-up had of several pairs of brothers. Many felt that the brothers made a winning difference.
Newspaper Sports: Owen Sound Hockey History was detailed in the pages of the Owen Sound Sun Times in detail in the days before the radio and television eras.
Owen Sound Hockey's early history some references suggest started in the 1880s. However there are records of organized hockey teams beginning in the early 1900s.
Owen Sound was a Hockey Hotbed in 1950-51: Their fans were hockey crazy during this OHA Senior A Championship season as their star-studded team marched to an Allan Cup victory.
The 1959-60 Owen Sound Greys: A Tough Act to Follow: Tragedy struck this hockey team of young men, yet they persevered.
The 1960s Owen Sound Greys Stars who went on to NHL action including Brian Perry, Doug Brindley, Jim Schoenfeld, and Jack Lynch brought Owen Sound a reputation as a hockey hotbed!
Owen Sound Attack: The arrival of this new OHL team is the latest chapter in the Owen Sound region's rich hockey history.
Owen Sound Goalies: Why does Owen Sound produce so many fine goaltenders? There must be something in the water!
Some Great Owen Sound Greys. The history of this hockey team is a story of players who were not only local boys, but came from many locations to hone their skills.
Owen Sound Hockey Heritage stretches from rural farmhouses on Saturday night to backyard rinks to cheering for local hockey successes and hockey heroes.
Owen Sound Junior Hockey History began almost one hundred and twenty years ago and is rich with championship teams, great players, and dedicated fans.
Owen Sound's New Arena in 1938 opened a new era in Grey and Bruce counties with the first artificial ice making machine in western Ontario north of Kitchener.
Owen Sound Platers: Ray McKelvie the quiet and knowledgeable leader behind the success of the 1999 hockey team.
Pat McReavy enjoyed a long hockey career which brought him three championships, the Stanley Cup, the Allan Cup and a World Hockey Title.
Paul MacDermid, born in Chesley Ontario, through hard work and determination enjoyed a 12 year NHL career, before keeping junior hockey alive in Owen Sound by working with a group citizens to purchase the Attack OHL franchise.
"Red" Armstrong, a fiery spirited hockey player, known more for his fierce checking than his scoring prowess surprised even himself on his first NHL shift.
Red Leckie was more than a good hockey player. He played for the team, not for himself. Outside hockey, he responded when he saw a need in his community.
Southampton hockey history in the early years featured a distinct line of defense in the local arena, and stories of interesting "road" trips.
Tommy Burlington: the Greatest North American Never to Play in the NHL captured scoring titles in every league that he played, bringing comparisons to NHL greats.
Owen Sound Hockey History is rich with stories of championship teams, star hockey players, and community support.