In the Spring of 1996, a scruffy 15 year old who was a quiet wall flower, attended a hockey game. That game, held in the downtown Oklahoma City Myriad Arena wasn't the first this youngster had been to and it certainly wasn't going to be his last. The visiting team was from San Antonio, but all eyes were on the potent, dynamic, and dominate home squad armed with weapons named "Doug", "Jean-ian", "Steve", "George" and of course, "Joe". They were heroes on ice. Men playing a hard game. Earning $250 a week. Loving their city. Honoring Oklahoma. These players were becoming legends, and they played a legendary game on April 21st that would change the sports landscape in Oklahoma City for years to come.
That 15 year old kid was me. And nearly 15 years later, I'm still as scruffy as I was then, a lot wiser, definitely heavier, still occasionally quiet, but still in absolute wonderment of what took place on that April evening with 13,000 of my closest friends.
The 1995-1996 season for the Central Hockey League Oklahoma City Blazers, was remarkable. That team set 24 league records, and soldiered through a season with a 47-13-4 record. Their dominance wasn't just impressive, it was feared by any team that dare confront the Blazers. Only several years old, the newly organized Central League featured six teams in all, which seemed like a nod to the old school nature of small leagues and common opponents. But in a short time, the Blazers became the team to beat, and the one with the fanbase behind it to further emphasis its punch in the face, score often, pound you into the ground style of game. It was minor league hockey that seemed kind of cliche in the early 90's, but it was our hockey, our team, and we loved every second of it.
The Spring of '96 the Blazers would beat the San Antonio Iguanas in 7 games. The 4-2 final game was Oklahoma City's first pro hockey victory since 1967. A combination of solid vets and promising rookies was mangled together by newcomer of a coach, Doug Sauter whom sported the greatest mustache since Oklahoma lawmen of the late 1800's. Despite a record of 240-108-34, Coach Sauter had yet to win a championship with various leagues and with various teams. With the championship now completed, "Coach" moved forward and continued to win.
The team brought a championship title to the city that wasn't of the pigskin variety, a first in a long time. But through all the excitement and dominance that the Oklahoma City Blazers would have in their years of existence, there was a name that the city would come to love as one of their own. A smallish player who'd been told "no" more than "yes". Who shouldn't have accomplished all that he could accomplish. And certainly shouldn't have been Oklahoma City's legendary sports star. From the unlikeliest of places, "Smokin'" Joe Burton became the face of Oklahoma City sports.
It's rare that a stat sheet can speak solely for a player, but in the case of Joe Burton, it's wildly impressive. The Michigan native that showed up for training camp in Oklahoma City, and was nearly cut, would score 40 goals 7 straight season, 41 hat tricks, 565 career goals, 985 points, and two CHL Championships in 708 games played. Awe-mazing. But it wasn't just his knack for scoring goals, winning dramatically, and anchoring a dominant minor league organization that gave Joe his swagger. No, for Joe Burton, it was about passion. Despite the lack of knowledge of the game, Oklahoma City residents have and always will understand passion. It's that contagious character, vigor, dedication, and diligence that earns a special place in the soul of sports fans everywhere - even outside the game of sticks and pucks.
On January 10th, 2012, the Central League welcomed the first inductees into the CHL Hall of Fame. And the conversation, and subsequent unanimous decision, had "Smokin'" Joe Burton at the top of the list.
"When I heard about this honor, I was honestly speechless," said Burton. "As a youngster, I only dreamed about becoming a hockey player and then as a teenager you hope that you get the opportunity to keep playing at a higher level. But as a person with the chance to play professional hockey, the last thing on your ‘to do' list is to a make a hall of fame. The CHL and Oklahoma City became my second family and I am truly grateful to be honored in this way."
Joe, along with two other non-player inductees, have become the first class of the CHL Hall of Fame. It most likely won't be a brick and mortar type of establishment. There won't be the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to a certain town, in a certain state. Rather it will be a figurative Hall of Fame, but don't let that take away the importance of the moment for both Joe and Oklahoma City.
From 1992-2003, Joe Burton embodied not only a hockey player, but a champion of the city. You mentioned sports in Oklahoma City, he immediately was mentioned in the next breath. He invited people to watch and enjoy a game that they just didn't quite understand fully. But you'd never see him on a great stage, in a nice suit, pleading for people to attend hockey games - he challenged you with his heart. Even the coldest and cynical of individuals found that magnetic. His quiet manner, kind smile, amazing giftedness, and winning ways were shining examples of everything that Oklahoma in the 90's was slowly becoming.
The impact that Joe Burton had on the great people of Oklahoma City can still be felt long after his retirement and now recognition in the CHL Hall of Fame. To say a minor league hockey player, in a non-hockey market could change the landscape of a city might be a little over-zealous, but not in the case of Burton. He put OKC on the map sports wise. No Joe Burton, and likely you'll get no attention from the New Orleans Hornets, who needed a solid sports market to house their team in the short term. No Joe Burton, and there's no eventual move of the Thunder to the city. It was actually a selling point by city leaders that the city had long since wielded an enticing hockey team, filled buildings with fans, and churning out a viable product. And it goes without saying that if there's no Joe Burton, there certainly isn't an Edmonton Oilers affiliated team within 600 miles of Oklahoma. "Smokin'" Joe was a star. A star that I hope this city never forgets.
Coach Doug Sauter, who had the privilege of coaching Joe Burton for all those years, was the one who contacted Burton about his recognition. And in typical Sauter/Burton form, they jabbed each other about the night Coach left him off the official roster, Joe scored, and the goal was striked from the score sheet. "Joe was a great player, and great for Oklahoma City," said Sauter in last night's Barons broadcast, "in all my years of coaching, I've never seen anyone play like he did. No one deserves this honor more."
As the city has taken on new teams, changed its facade, and attracted big business like few in a recession can do, it's of value to remember those that chiseled the foundation. The truth is, that this is a story that I'd hoped to write for years. Outside of death or high honor, rarely do we get the opportunity to place our sports figures on a pedestal justly. In a world where very few franchise players exist, it's nice knowing that sometimes the face of an organization can leave such an impressive legacy. Joe Burton's name might be forgotten over time, but his game-changing impact can be felt throughout this town; whether you realize it or not.
The remnants of that 1996 Blazers Central Hockey League Championship used to be felt in the bowels of the Myriad, now called the Cox Center. Pictures of that moment were hung in the walkways, but have since been replaced by the new team in town. The welcome of the Barons brought a better league, better players, and a much better product for the city to digest. Indeed, on all accounts, the Cox Center is filled during the months of October-April with some really great hockey. But there are times when I sit in those orangey seats, and think fondly of the days when the Blazers owned every opponent it faced. I think back to that shifty Michigan kid, who was so small on the ice, but somehow managed to play like he was 6' 5" 205. His name was "Smokin'" Joe, and for all practical purposes, he was our Gretzky. And although he was a minor leaguer, he was every bit as important to those that watched him play or heard of his existence in Oklahoma. And as a 15 year old it stirred my passion for hockey.
Don't forget "Smokin'" Joe, Oklahoma City, nor forget the lineage of great hockey and great people whom came before. Because, in the end, you might not get a figure quite as important in the future.