Tommy Burlington:
Greatest North American
Never to Play in the NHL

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.

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 about his life and that I should call him that night. I immediately called the number that Pat had given me and spoke to Mr. Burlington. He was emphatic that I visit him the next evening.

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 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. 


Tommy Burlington

My father and I watched many hockey games together and one thing never changes. 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.  

Tommy: Sets His First Scoring Record

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 American Hockey League. 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. New 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 Western Division for the AHL. 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.

Tommy Burlington:
Owen Sound Mercury Star

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 play offs. 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.  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.

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