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Luka Burzan couldn’t hide his disappointment when the Moose Jaw Warriors dealt him to the Brandon Wheat Kings at the 2018 trade deadline.
Then 17, Burzan was in his second season with a veteran-laden and talented Warriors club, which traded for Brandon defenceman Kale Clague as they loaded up for a run at the Western Hockey League title.
What a difference a couple of years has made for Burzan.
Now 20 and hoping to make a jump to the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche, the product of Surrey, B.C., said everything worked out exactly as it was supposed to in 2018.
"Looking back, that was the best thing that ever happened to me, coming to Brandon," Burzan said. "It’s such a great hockey community. Everyone is so nice and the fans are great. Everything overall has been first class and I’ve improved a lot as a player. I got that development I need and that playing time previously. I made a lot of great memories in Brandon and that place is like home to me."
Brandon also acquired a first-round pick in 2019 they used to select Rylen Roersma, a first-round pick in 2021 and defenceman Chase Hartje, who they flipped to the Winnipeg Ice franchise when it was still in Cranbrook, B.C. They received a third-round pick for Hartje, which they used to select Wawanesa defenceman Owen Harris.
Meanwhile, the Warriors fell to the eventual league champion Swift Current Broncos in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
The six-foot-one, 181-pound centre, who posted 27 points in his rookie season after being selected with the sixth overall pick, quickly found his stride in Brandon after arriving for the 2017-18 season, eclipsing the 19 points he had in 42 games with Moose Jaw with 21 points in 30 games with the Wheat Kings.
As an 18-year-old, he finished second in team scoring behind Stelio Mattheos with 78 points, and his 62 points led the team last season as he potted 35 goals and 27 assists in 63 games in the pandemic-shortened season.
Burzan’s game is predicated on his speed but greatly enhanced by his willingness to camp out in the hard areas around the net where attacking forwards draw the ire of defenders.
"Most of my goals are a couple of feet away from the net," Burzan said. "I don’t really shoot many sniper shots."
His efforts were certainly noticed. After going undrafted in his first year of eligibility, Colorado grabbed him in the sixth round of the 2019 draft.
As an overager this season, he is also eligible to play in Colorado’s organization with the American Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles or the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, where former Wheat Kings Ty Lewis and Tim McGauley played last season.
"Right now, my goal is to go to Colorado and I want to make the NHL," Burzan said. "That’s every guy’s goal going into camp. I don’t want to look at the American Hockey League. I don’t want to have any Plan B’s or go back to Brandon. I’m always looking to get to the next level. Obviously if I don’t make it in Colorado and I go back to Brandon, that’s not the worst thing for my development but right now I want to take the next step."
His journey toward the next step has certainly taken an unexpected turn. Like everyone else, Burzan was stuck at home and couldn’t go to the gym or skating after the initial onset of COVID-19.
"The start of quarantine was a little bit tough," Burzan said. "I took a little time off but I bought a bit of equipment at Walmart and tried to do as many different workouts as I could. Colorado sent me some workouts during that time and I was doing that. I really didn’t need a lot of equipment."
Burzan’s buddy Brendan Boyle, who plays for the Price George Cougars and lives an hour away in Vernon, invited him to his house for workouts. As a result, Burzan was able to use more gym equipment.
"It was weird at first," Burzan said. "Nobody was ever been through this kind of thing before and had to adjust like this. It’s a little different this year with the amount of time we have for training. It’s something that will probably never happen again. I’m just enjoying my time at home."
To help pass the time, Burzan picked up a job at a golf course. He said even during the strange times brought on by the pandemic, he couldn’t afford to lose any motivation.
"You still have a goal to reach," Burzan said. "You still want to go to the next level. If you take some time off or start doing stupid things, it will affect you and you’ll fall behind guys. You have to stay focused and sacrifice a bit. You have to stay on task as much as you can."
Burzan said he’s trying to get stronger, and put on muscle in his legs and upper body. He’s only been able to skate a couple of times each week, but has been working on his quick starts.
Prior to the season ending in mid-March, the Wheat Kings had shown steady improvement as they adjusted to new head coach Dave Lowry’s expectations and style of play. Burzan certainly noticed the difference.
"The one thing I noticed from the start of the year to the end was how hard we worked," Burzan said. "We were willing to do it for the guy beside us, no matter what it took. We didn’t respect any other team, no matter how good they were. We wanted to be the best and we had a great coaching staff. (Overage goaltender Jiri) Patera was unbelievable and everybody did their role and played to their best ability. It helped us a lot. It was tough not going into the playoffs and seeing what we could have done.
"We built a lot last year so this year could be special."
Burzan, who hasn’t signed with Colorado yet, was also happy with Lowry’s impact on his game. Burzan said the longtime NHLer and veteran coach pushed him to be better.
"He expects the best out of you," Burzan said. "He’s hard on you but it’s only because he cares about you and he knows what it takes to get to the next level … He’s a great coach and he’s obviously shown he can improve a lot of guys. Our team improved so much from the start of the year to the end. I loved having Dave as a coach and (assistant coach) Don (MacGillivray) as a coach. I can’t be more thankful for them."
Now he’s looking to build on what he learned last season. While it certainly won’t be a normal year, he’s eager to get going.
"It will be a little bit weird starting in December or January," Burzan said. "Everybody is going through he same thing. It will be weird seeing if there are any fans or not but it’s just things you have to adjust to. I think the NHL is doing a really good job right now and the intensity is up there."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson
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