Tommy Burke didn’t take the traditional route to college hockey.
His midget team cut him. Two junior teams in the North American Hockey League cut him.
And he failed to receive any interest from junior teams in the United States Hockey League.
But once he found a home with the NAHL’s Bismarck Bobcats and later committed to Bowling Green, his game blossomed.
Now the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is helping the Falcons contend for first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Burke — who admits he is a late bloomer — has started seven of BG’s 14 games, posting a 4-2-1 record, a 1.98 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.
The Falcons, ranked 14th nationally, are 10-3-1 overall and 7-1 in the WCHA going into this weekend’s series at No. 19 Northern Michigan (8-3-1, 5-3). The teams play Friday and Saturday nights at 7:07.
“He’s probably the ultimate overachiever,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “What he said to us was he was looking for an opportunity. We had that. Ever since he got here, he’s wrapped his arms around the opportunity and made the most of it.
“He’s done exactly what he told us he was going to do. He was going to do the best he could every day, try to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Burke, a junior, has started five of BG’s last seven games, going 4-1 with a 1.80 goals-against and a .936 save percentage. His save percentage of .948 in league games only this season leads the WCHA.
“We’ve been really pleased with him,” Bergeron said. “Everything he’s gotten, he’s earned. He’s been given nothing. Other guys are handed time in games and opportunities in games. He was given an opportunity to be in a program. What he’s done with that, it’s a great example for other people.”
Burke’s childhood goal was to play college hockey and skate in the NHL.
The Chaska, Minn. native played for Holy Angels High School during the 2009-10 season.
He had a 2.83 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage in 18 regular-season games and a 3.03 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in two playoff games.
Burke was all-conference his last seasons at Holy Angels and his 19 wins during the 2009-10 season set a school record.
The next season, he was released after one game by both Owatonna and Port Huron in the NAHL. He had a 5.00 goals-against for Owatonna and a 9.38 goals-against for Port Huron.
“I always had faith in myself, and my friends had faith in me,” said Burke, whose hometown is about 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis. “They told me I could do it, and that was important, having a great support group. They told me I’d be fine.”
Since an early age, Burke was always close with Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders; Nick Mattson, who is playing at North Dakota; and brothers Mike, Connor and Ryan Reilly, who are playing at the University of Minnesota.
“We all wanted to play college hockey, and we all wanted to do it at the same time,” Burke said. “We’ve all supported each other.
“It was hard for me early on when I was getting released, but I just tried to take advantage of the next opportunity I had. You can’t pout about it and make it worse. You can’t let it snowball. You have to turn it into something good.”
Burke eventually caught on with Bismarck during the 2010-11 season, serving as the backup to Ryan Faragher.
Faragher went onto play three seasons at St. Cloud State University before signing an NHL contract with Anaheim at the end of last season.
Burke played in six regular-season games, posting a 2.64 goals-against and a .913 save percentage. In five playoff games, he had a 1.91 goals-against and a .941 save percentage.
“He was a good guy to look up to,” Burke said of Faragher. “I worked hard in practice and just waited my turn. I felt like I was a good teammate, even though I didn’t play much. I learned what it took to be a true pro. It started me to get to where I am now.”
Burke returned to Bismarck the next season and became the Bobcats’ No. 1 goalie.
He had a 2.59 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in 43 regular-season games, and a 3.62 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage in two playoff games.
During Burke’s second season at Bismarck, the Falcons were looking for a goalie for the 2012-13 season.
Burke was one of four goalies on BG’s list, thanks to former Miami defenseman Todd Rohloff.
Rohloff, a friend of Falcon assistant coach Barry Schutte, recommended Burke to the BG staff. Rohloff, who lives in the Bismarck area, and Schutte were teammates at Miami from 1994-97.
Schutte was scheduled to watch Burke play in person, but Burke was on the bench that night after a rare bad game in the playoffs. But that didn’t lessen BG’s interest.
“We watched a lot of video of him, and his game was consistent,” Schutte said.
Burke eventually committed to play at BG. The only other schools to show interest were Clarkson of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, and the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology and Bentley of Atlantic Hockey.
“We believed he was wired the right way and he was going to make the most of his opportunity; that’s why we took a chance on him,” Schutte said. “How many games, how many wins, nobody knows how that will work out.”
“He was willing to come out of his comfort zone and make the most of his opportunity,” Bergeron said. “Over the last 2½ years, he’s proven he’s absolutely willing to do that.”
WITH THE FALCONS
Burke was slated to be the backup to former standout Andrew Hammond during his freshman season (2012-13).
But Hammond injured his elbow in BG’s season opener, and Burke was thrust into a starting role. Hammond, who is currently is in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, injured his knee later that season.
Burke appeared in 15 games that season, posting a 2.89 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage.
“I came in with my eyes open,’ Burke said. “I was just trying to be a sponge and soak everything in. As a freshman, I was a little scared, a little timid. I was scared to go in the net at times.
“Now, I want to be in the net and I feel it’s my net, whether it’s a practice or a game. That’s the attitude you have to have if you’re a goalie. It’s not saying I’m better, but it just shows I have confidence, and I want to be in the net now.”
Burke and Tomas Sholl shared the No. 1 duties most of last season before Burke emerged as the No. 1 down the stretch.
In 28 games, he had a 2.43 goals-against and a .912 save percentage as the Falcons tied for third in the WCHA. They finished 18-15-6 overall and 13-11-4 in the league.
His biggest improvement has come in allowing fewer soft goals.
“I was more consistent last year,” Burke said. “Last year, I didn’t have those four bad games in a row. I might have had one bad game or one bad period, but not four bad games. It’s part of being a junior. Now, you hold yourself accountable.
“My style isn’t the most glamorous,” Burke added. “I’m not the most athletic or the most flexible goalie, so I try to keep every puck simple and be in the right position.”
Burke is one of three goalies vying for the No. 1 spot this season.
Freshman Chris Nell is 4-0 with a 2.00 goals-against and a .933 save percentage and has split the last two series with Burke.
Sholl, who hasn’t played since Oct. 31, has a 2.67 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage. His record is 2-1.
The Falcons can dress all three goalies at home, but only two can travel to road games under WCHA rules. The goalies often room together on road trips.
“I still want to play every game, and they all want to play every game,” Burke said. “To put myself in that position later this season or next season, I have to keep pushing myself against them, and they have to push themselves against me.”
Burke said the three goalies have a good relationship on and off the ice.
“Away from the rink, it’s been non-hockey stuff for us, and that’s been good,” Burke said. “Each of us, away from the rink, we put hockey aside and just have a good time. At the rink, we push each other. At the rink, it’s business, and we know it’s supposed to be done that way. “
‘JUST AN INTERESTING KID’
Burke also has fared well academically with a 3.3 grade-point average in finance.
“He’s just an interesting kid, somebody we’re proud of because of what he’s done in the time he’s been here,” Bergeron said. “You talk about school, you talk about any conditioning tests we’ve had or anything in the weight room, and this is a kid who takes pride in everything. He’s done well in every aspect of his time here.
“This isn’t a guy who flicks the switch on and says ‘I’m going to start to care about this, but not about that.’ He cares about everything and does it as hard as he can. He’s going to be successful in life because of that approach, and it isn’t something we’ve taught him. He expects great for himself every day.”
Burke, 23, is aiming to continue his individual improvement and help BG win the WCHA regular-season and playoff championships.
BG’s last regular-season league title came in 1987, and it hasn’t won a league playoff championship since 1988. The Falcons also are looking for their first NCAA playoff berth since 1990.
Not bad for a goalie who was told he wouldn’t play at the NCAA Division I level.
“People told me I wasn’t good enough to play at a private (high school) and I would end up playing Division III hockey in college,” Burke said. “I’ve taken all of those life lessons and channeled it in the right way. I feel like I’ve turned into a guy the coaches and the team can look at to lead this team and win.
“If that’s not my role, I’ll still help the team in any way I can,” Burke added. “That’s what it is all about. You just have to contribute the best way you can.”