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John ‘Cub’ Burke Looks Back on a Half-Century with the Sun Valley Suns
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John “Cub” Burke has been invaluable at recruiting top players for the Sun Valley Suns. PHOTO: Karen Bossick
 
 
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Monday, December 4, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

John “Cub” Burke has been the face of Sun Valley Suns ice hockey for a half-century. And, in between hockey seasons, he left his footprints on many of the nation’s premier golf courses, serving as a caddie for 33 years.

On Thursday Burke will be inducted into the Sun Valley Winter Sports Hall of Fame  in a ceremony at The Community Library. The ceremony will be livestreamed and recorded for later watching at https://vimeo.com/event/3883879.

“It’s surreal, really,” said Burke. “And I’m humbled.”

Burke was able to make such a big impact on hockey in Sun Valley in part because he never let his dream of becoming a big-time hockey player go to his head.

He grew up in Duluth, Minn., where like so many Minnesota boys, he fell under hockey’s spell.

“I grew up in the ‘50s and life was pretty simple then,” he said. “Winters are long there and me and my friends were out on the ice even when it was minus-30.”

The Duluth area boasted one of the best youth hockey programs in the country in those days, providing a pipeline to college and the pros. But Burke’s dreams of following that pipeline were dashed when his father took a newspaper job in the northern California town of Ukiah—where there was no hockey.

As soon as he graduated from high school, he returned to Duluth. But he had missed a lot of years when he could have been building his skills.

“I continually got cut from teams,” he recounted. “Reno kept me for a couple months until they found somebody better, and I told them, ‘What took so long?!’ ”

That cut proved to be a stroke of fortune as Burke looks back now. He followed Hermie Haavik to Sun Valley sight unseen. And he was quickly recruited for the fledgling Suns hockey team, which then was practicing on Sun Valley’s outdoor ice rink sending pucks into snowbanks.

“Suns hockey started in 1975--the same year as ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said. “People say I’m an original Sun, but I call myself the first unoriginal Sun because they had played four games by the time I got here.”

The team was a good one, said Burke, made up of strong players like Charlie Holt of the University of Minnesota; Nick Orr, a formidable 6-foot-5-230-pound player; Alex Orb, Hermie Haavik, John Heinrich, John Weekes and Minnesota North Stars owner George Gund, who built the indoor rink at Sun Valley for his team.

“Our big rivalry was a team from Aspen. We also played a team from Salt Lake City and the Red Zinger Fireballs, which were sponsored by a tea company,” said Burke.

Burke didn’t hesitate to rejoin the team for its second season.

“I loved it so much. The team got better and better, and the community was so supportive. We’d have 1,400 people packing the rink, literally climbing on the rafters. Suns hockey was the biggest show in town.”

Burke played for 11 seasons, during which he scored some 200 goals. He coached for 16 seasons, including one stint during which the team posted a 122-42-8 record. He’s served as president of the organization since, bringing scores of talented players to Sun Valley.

“Only one senior elite team in the United States has been around longer, and that’s St. Nicks out of New York—they started at the turn of the century. It’s a lot of work but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The team is classy, they compete hard and they offer good entertainment value for the community.

“We could compete at the semi-pro level without question,” he added. “The players don’t get paid. They play because they love it.”

Burke’s cherished memories with the Suns include that of going to Europe in 1988 and hosting the USA National Championships in 1987, in which the Suns lost in the finals to a team from Fairbanks, Alaska. The team went to Japan in 1984 after the Japanese national team played in Sun Valley.

They spent two weeks there, playing on national TV and treated like rock stars. One of the teams they played was a Russian national team that took a liking to the American players who shared the 26th floor of the hotel with them.

The Russians were in one wing, guarded by KGB agents. And they wistfully watched the Suns partying at the other end of the wing.

“They’d walk out on the ledges outside the hotel, although it was the middle of winter, and come in through the window in my Cubbie Cabana,” Burke recounted. “We would trade jeans and Bruce Springsteen tapes. We didn’t win our game against them, but we did well.”

Off the ice Burke embarked on a 33-year-career as a PGA golf caddy for pro players like Davis Love III. He caddied at about two dozen tournaments each summer, and he was with Love when the golfer won The Players Championship in April 2003.

It was on the Elkhorn Golf Course that he got his nickname “Cub” or “Cubbie.”

“I shot a three under par on the first nine and they started calling me the Golden Cub since that was the era of Jack Nicklaus, who was nicknamed the Golden Bear. But I shot a 48 on the back nine so they said, ‘We’ll take the golden part away.”

Burke and Haavik founded the Sun Valley Senior Hockey League in the 1970s, and Burke founded the Black Diamond Hockey League in 2014. The league is now comprised of eight teams, including the Vail Yeti, Breckenridge Vipers, Aspen Leafs, Jackson Hole Moose and Texas Titans.

The Suns have won three Black Diamond Hockey League championships. And they will get a chance to compete for another this season as the league is being resurrected following the pandemic.

Burke is perhaps proudest of Sun Valley Youth Hockey, which he founded with Alex Orb. The Suns kicked off this year’s season on Friday night starting five local players who came up in the youth program.

“It’s amazing to have Joey Sides back after his professional career He and Cody Lampl were one call up from the National Hockey League,” said Burke. “And we’ve had an amazing number of other kids like Spencer Brendel who went on to play hockey at prep school, college and pro teams. And our Sun Valley Youth Hockey won the National Championship last season. I look at the kids in the program today and wonder: Who’s going to be the next Joey Sides?”

Today Burke spends winters in Arizona and summers in Ontario, Canada, playing a little hockey and a little golf. But he makes his way to Sun Valley for at least four or five sets of Sun Valley Suns games each winter.

“I have to kind of as I am president of hockey operations,” he quipped. “But the smartest move I ever made was stepping aside and let the younger players take over. They’re doing a fabulous job.”

THE CLASS OF 2023

John “Cub” Burke is being inducted with alpine skiers Jonna Mendes and Heather Flood-Daves, adaptive ski coach Marc Mast and Olympic ice dancer Judy Blumberg.

 

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