SAN DIEGO — Gulls owner Fred Comrie signed Canadian Olympic goalie and NHL free-agent Sean Burke on Sunday, saying the move will "shock" the professional hockey world.
The Gulls, meanwhile, made a strong statement of their own, routing the Phoenix Roadrunners, 7-2, in front of 5,723 at the San Diego Sports Arena and taking over sole possession of second place in the West Division of the International Hockey League with 87 points.
"We have just made a signing that's going to shock the league--it's going to shock two leagues," said Comrie, who became the Gulls' owner Wednesday. "We want to build on a championship here."
Burke, 25, a four-year NHL veteran with New Jersey had not renewed his contract with the Devils. Instead, the goalie led Team Canada to the 1991 Canada Cup and a silver medal in the Olympics just over two weeks ago.
Hours after flying to San Diego to meet Comrie--and in the midst of the Gulls five-goal second period--he signed a contract for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs, with an option to play here next year.
"I looked at this offer, and it really intrigued me," said Burke, who doesn't want to play for New Jersey and has been the subject of several NHL trade rumors. "I'm here, and I'm happy to be here, and I'm not concerned about a trade in the NHL now.
"It's another chance for me to do something different in hockey."
The crowd at the Sports Arena roared as Burke was signing his contract in the press box in the second period--not because of the signing, but because Alan Hepple, Dmitri Kvartalnov and Ray Whitney scored three goals for the Gulls within 40 seconds, leading to the victory that put them two points in front the Peoria Rivermen in the West. The Gulls have 87 points, Peoria 85 after a 3-2 loss to Indianapolis.
Burke's agent, Herb Pinder, said three NHL clubs had contacted him in the past two days to ask for more time to make a deal. That was before Burke signed a contract with what he said is an NHL salary and several incentives.
The Gulls, however, did not appear to need another goaltender, with Rick Knickle having perhaps his best year as a pro and Philadelphia Flyer minor leaguer Bruce Hoffort ably backing him up.
"Rick Knickle is going to be playing and he's going to be playing well," Comrie said. "I've seen (Burke) in the clutch. He's a big performer. He was most valuable player in the World Championships in '91, he won the Canada Cup in '91 and he just came back with an Olympic silver medal.
"That's the type of person we know will lead this team."
Gull Coach and General Manager Don Waddell, although excited about the signing, refused to name Burke as his No. 1 goalie with Knickle, 32, getting his IHL-leading 27th victory Sunday.
Said Waddell of Knickle and Hoffort, "Both guys are professionals and they'll both handle it in a very positive way. I'm sure of it."
Nevertheless, Knickle could consider Burke's signing as slap in the face. For Hoffort (11-9-4, 3.62 goals-against average), San Diego could become his personal Siberia.
"The word fair doesn't come into hockey," said Knickle, who made some spectacular saves, stopped 23 shots and did not allow a goal until 5:21 left in the third period with Burke watching. "I've never heard that word in 12 years. I've been through it before, too many times. I think my wife is more upset about it than I am.
"I played tonight to show Fred or maybe Sean it's going to be tough. If you want to get in the net, this league is no pushover."
Burke has a lifetime 62-66 record and 3.65 goals-against average in the NHL, but was 8-12 (3.59 gaa.) at New Jersey last year, yielding his No. 1 spot to Chris Terreri.
Knickle might be having his best season since his junior days at Brandon of the Western Hockey League, where he finished 34-5 with seven ties his first year in 1977-78. He was 32-21-5 at Flint in the IHL in 1983-84. He had 22 victories in 1988-89 at Fort Wayne and 25 victories with a league-leading 3.11 goals-against average in with Flint in 1989-90.
Sunday's victory gave Knickle a 27-11-3 mark and the seventh-best goals-against average, 3.39. He is 9-0-1 in his last 10 games at home.
Waddell has sung Knickle's praises all season, calling him the team's most valuable player--the one player who has truly carried the team through good and bad periods.
"We've got the best goaltending combination in the league right now," Waddell said. "I never hold back if we can get a player that will help our hockey club."
The Gulls' five goals in the second period tied a club record, with Larry Floyd and Robbie Nichols also striking. Ron Duguay had two goals in the third period.
Winger Steve Martinson was back with the Gulls Sunday, returned by the Minnesota North Stars, who purchased his contract and brought him up for three games last week. He played in one game and had nine penalty minutes . . . Wing Denny Lambert was suspended indefinitely, missing Sunday's game, for disputing referee Dave Cassidy in Friday's game. The length of the suspension is pending review. . . . Former Gull Soren True had 18 goals and 19 assists in 45 games for the Gulls before he was traded to Phoenix in January.