Although the playoffs were cut short by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) was able to play out its full regular season.
This left more than enough time for Winkler Flyers defenceman Drake Burgin to take the league by storm and win the 2019-20 MJHL Defenceman of the Year award.
He finished the 60-game season with 12 goals and 41 assists for 53 points — 31 more than in his previous season.
The 19-year-old Winnipeg native is now set to close out his junior hockey career in Winkler, Man., a town he’s come to love.
“Playing in Winkler is great,” he said. “Our whole coaching staff have been great as well as our trainers and people behind the scenes who don’t regularly get recognized.
“The fan support is amazing and the rink really comes alive during home games.”
Playing junior hockey usually forces players to move away from home at an early age. However, this major change helps them become closer and better friends with their teammates, who often become a surrogate family.
“Junior hockey has had a huge impact on my life,” Burgin said.
“Going into junior hockey, I had joined a team where I really only knew one person. The other guys embraced me quickly and eventually it becomes a brotherhood.”
Winning defenceman of the year is quite an accomplishment at any level of play, but at the junior-A level, it is outstanding — and for Burgin especially so, considering how quickly he’s grown as a player.
Before joining the Flyers, Burgin played AAA hockey with the Winnipeg Monarchs and Winnipeg Wild, where he accumulated 41 points over two seasons.
He then moved on to Winkler where he scored 75 points in his first two years.
Burgin has improved drastically every year, something he gives the team support staff a lot of credit for.
“I had great teammates, great coaches and family pushing me to work my hardest day in and out and the hard work paid off,” Burgin said.
Junior hockey can take its physical and mental toll, as players grow from boys into men.
Games get tougher and the competition gets fiercer, but the hard work Burgin mentioned is all part of his dedication to the game.
“Junior hockey is a whole new experience,” Burgin said.
“Guys are bigger, faster and stronger, so to compete you have to work on yourself off of the ice as well. So, for any young guys who want to play, you really have to dedicate yourself.
“It’s a 60-game season of getting beat up constantly, so you have to be mentally and physically prepared.”
This preparation starts before the puck is even dropped, and most high-end players have a huge pregame routine that they follow every game. Burgin, though, has his own way of doing things.
“My routines are pretty light, I try to have fun and enjoy myself before games,” he said.
“It helps me stay loose and keep a level head while I’m in the game. Of course I have a couple handshakes with the guys, but other than that stuff that’s about it.”
Junior hockey in Canada is meant to prepare players for the next level, whether that’s the college league, a league overseas or, for those lucky few, the NHL. Even though going pro is an uncertain path, Burgin has big future hockey plans — he wants to go to college.
“When it comes to hockey, it’s pretty hard to tell what the future will be like, there are so many minor things that can mess with where you might go,” Burgin said.
“My goal is to eventually play college hockey at the [Division 1] level.”