In most cases, we have the right to choose. For one hockey player, the ideal situation chose him.
East Setauket native Erik Burgdoerfer has finally earned his chance to play in the National Hockey League, but what makes his situation unique is that the Buffalo Sabres — the first team to ask him to sign an NHL contract — happen to play in his extended family’s hometown.
“I would go to Sabres games as a kid — I have a big, extended family, and they’re out of their minds,” his mother Jane Burgdoerfer said. “We’re all huge Sabres fans. This is the biggest thing that could ever hit Buffalo.”
The newly signed defenseman will have a built-in fan base when he first hits the ice in Buffalo.
“We were sitting at the table talking about how it would be great if he was at opening night against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 13, and we were counting and talking to people who would go. We would need upwards of 65 tickets,” Erik Burgdoerfer’s uncle Larry Catalano said, laughing. “And this was just literally within the first hour of us talking about it.”
The news came July 21, when the Sabres announced they signed Burgdoerfer to a one-year, two-way deal. This means that the 27-year-old can be sent between the NHL and the American Hockey League without having to clear waivers, which gives the team flexibility.
“I’m very happy to be joining the organization there and it’s an added bonus that my family is around there,” the player said. “I’m in a new setting now, but I just want to continue trending up, and hopefully with a little more hard work, I can reach my goal of playing in the NHL. But until I get those games, I’m not done yet.”
After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he started as the youngest college hockey player in the nation, Burgdoerfer began his pro career in 2010 with the Bakersfield Condors, a minor league hockey team in California, where he played for four seasons. There, he had one of his most successful seasons when he put up a career-best 11 goals and 22 points in 67 games and, as a captain, led the team on a 16-game run through the Kelly Cup playoffs, which is the longest playoff run in team history.
His head coach with the Condors, Troy Mann, left for the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, and took the player along with him.
“He’s a real hard-working character kid, and I thought he had some good tools in terms of being able to climb the ladder,” Mann said. “When I got the head coaching job at Hershey, I felt that if we were going to sign depth players for us, I preferred players I either coached against or knew personally, and I was pretty adamant about getting Burgy under contract.”
“He has that physical component to him, very strong, his stick positioning and stick work is much improved … and he’s just a warrior-type player where his will to win is better than a lot of players.”
— Troy Mann
According to Mann, his defenseman was excellent in training camp, though he was sent down to South Carolina to play for Washington’s East Coast Hockey League affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays. Mann said as soon as Burgdoerfer was recalled to Hershey, the rest was history.
“He became a vital part of our team and we’re very sad that we’re losing him for this upcoming season,” he said of the 6-foot, 2-inch 210-pound defenseman who recorded 20 points off six goals and 14 assists, and 59 penalty minutes in 74 games. Burgdoerfer also added four assists and 18 penalty minutes in 21 playoff games for the Bears, who reached the Calder Cup finals for the 20th time. The team lost, but has won 11 championships.
“I put an emphasis on how much that experience has meant to me,” Burgdoerfer said of playing with the Bears. “My development in my career that’s led to this point — a lot of that has happened in the past two years. A couple of playoff runs and a great coaching staff have made for a great place for me to grow as a player and a person.”
He will likely begin the season with the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, unless he makes the NHL squad out of training camp, but his continued dedication to the sport has also helped him reach a new level.
“He continued to follow his dream like nobody I’ve ever seen before,” his mother said. “I don’t know anybody that’s worked harder for their goal. His focus and determination has been unwavering.”
She also said she believes her son is a goalkeeper’s dream on the blue line.
“He’s not a flashy player,” she said. “He’s the guy that gets the job done and that every goalie loves because he’s very protective.”
Mann is looking forward to seeing how his now former player progresses. He said he knows that Burgdoerfer was at the point in his career where he really wanted an opportunity to play in the NHL, and is glad to see he found that with the Sabres.
“He’s very well-rounded,” the coach said. “I think that one of the things you need to be able to do playing today’s game is skate, and I think he skates very well for a big man. He has that physical component to him, very strong, his stick positioning and stick work is much improved over the three years I’ve coached him, and he’s just a warrior-type player where his will to win is better than a lot of players. I’m real happy for him. I wish him well and really hope he sees some games in the NHL this year.”