By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
Wayne, New Jersey’s own Mickey Burns loves the home he has made in Erie, Pa., as a student and hockey player for Mercyhurst University, where he has resided since 2021. Of course, two years might not seem like a long time when you think of the first 20 years of his life spent in Wayne, the large portion of which were also spent as a hockey player inside Wayne’s own Ice Vault Arena.
Burns learned to skate there, played for the New Jersey Bandits youth hockey organization there and then transferred to the AAA Jersey Hitmen program when he became of age and began to climb the ladder. A lifelong devotee to the Bandits/Hitmen program, it was no surprise when his loyalty was rewarded with the “C” on his jersey of the Hitmen’s top team in the NCDC in 2019-20, a year in which he would eventually be named MVP of the Tier II Tuition-Free league.
He didn’t go very long without a letter returning to his chest this coming season for the Mercyhurst Lakers, as Burns was announced in the spring as wearing an “A” for the coming season.
“It’s something most guys strive for, they want to be a leader, and I’m glad my peers see that in me and the other guys to whom they awarded leadership positions,” said Burns. He will join fellow Lakers Adrien Bisson and Steven Agriogianis as wearing the “A” alongside Team Captain Marko Reifenberger in 2023-24. “We have a lot of leaders, more than just four, on this team. It’s just the beginning of the work we have to do this year.”
Coached by Rick Gotkin for all but the first of the Lakers’ 36-year program history, and they have made the NCAA Division I tournament three times in the 21st century, not long after twice finishing as national Division II runners-up in the former ECAC West Conference in the 1990s. Burns originally joined the University of Vermont out of the NCDC, before transferring following the 2020-21 season to Mercyhurst.
“It was obviously a little bit of a funky situation, transferring during the pandemic times, but Coaches Gotkin and [Greg] Gardner welcomed me with open arms,” said Burns. “It’s a tight-knit community, a small school, so I got acclimated quickly and I met a lot of people over these last two and a half years. I’m really looking forward to this year.
“I thought I had some good success in juniors, and when you’re there, you know that the Division I level is pretty high up there. Some things you worry might not transfer over, but the big thing I’ve learned is that most of the game is mental,” added Burns. “So much goes on in your head, and the biggest part of the adjustment is to settle in and play the game I’ve been playing for the past 18 years. The other players may change, and the rules may change from time to time, but it’s still the same game.”
That same game has seen Burns put together strong seasons of 12 points in 23 games in 2021-22 and 18 points in 36 games in this past 2022-23 campaign. He talked a little about how he’s gotten better at Mercyhurst.
“One of my strong suits is my speed, so funny enough I want to work on slowing the game down a little bit,” he added. “Your feet might move 1,000 miles per hour, and your head might spin, so for me it’s slowing the game down and making sure I’m in control.”
A Second Home Close To Home
He was absolutely in control of games when playing for the Hitmen in his final season at the Ice Vault, 2019-20, when he put together 45 goals and 77 points in 50 games, and attained the aforementioned MVP honors. This followed a very strong debut season of 41 points in 48 games. Burns was named to play in both 2019 and 2020 NCDC All-Star Games.
But his time with the Jersey Hitmen and their home the Ice Vault really does go back to the beginning for the Wayne native and graduate of Don Bosco Prep in nearby Ramsey, N.J.
“I live about five minutes away from the Ice Vault. My parents grew up in Wayne, so we’ve been a family in town forever. When the Ice Vault opened, they put me on the ice and I never wanted to leave. Even before playing for the Hitmen, I was playing AA there for the Bandits,” added Burns. “The people at the Ice Vault truly are the cream of the crop. They did more for me than I could ever likely pay back. I don’t think the grass would have been greener anywhere I went. And it goes beyond just having that five-minute drive – the Hitmen believed in me and I believed in them.”
He got his first official USPHL game in during the 2014-15 season, getting a one-game call-up as a 14-year-old on the Hitmen’s 16U USPHL team while also starting out at Don Bosco. He was a regular on the 16U team as a 15-year-old all year, and then had his big leadership year as a 16-year-old. He was the USPHL 16U MVP that year and his 38 assists is an all-time high for the USPHL 16U Division. His 58 points are second all-time to former teammate Tyler Coffey, heading into his senior year at Colorado College.
The next season, in 2017-18, he posted 19 points in 21 games for the USPHL 18U’s Hitmen. Meantime, his 77 points at Don Bosco as their Senior Captain saw him named New Jersey HIgh School Player Of The Year.
“Every time you rise through the ranks, you figure out what’s going to work and what you have to work on,” said Burns. “I know at each level I played I looked up to the next guys, so when I was 14 I looked up to the 16U guys, when I was 16, I looked up to the 18U team. I always had Hitmen guys to chase and model my game after. I always loved playing for the coach I had at the time, and I’d known most of these people beforehand, so I knew what they had to offer. You don’t stay in an organization or arena for 15 years if they don’t have good people or anything good going on.”
In his final Midget season, he got to play in his first three games in the NCDC, a conference playing its inaugural season at the time.
“At the time I was just about to jump into juniors so it was exciting, with the USPHL creating a league and providing for players on those teams, including talented kids who might not have had the financial stability to play and they can play now,” said Burns.
He got the “C” for the second time of his career in his final NCDC season, 2019-20. The Hitmen were absolutely on fire throughout that season and finished the season first overall going 42-5-1-2. They appeared poised to be the heavy favorite for the Dineen Cup. But that March, COVID-19 forced a slamming of the brakes across the sports world, from youth to the highest levels of pro. The NCDC playoffs were canceled and the Hitmen could only wonder what might have been.
“Wearing the ‘C’ for the Hitmen is special. Some people might take that for granted, but it’s something I really looked up to,” he added. “It was a shame that COVID had to cut that season short because we had an unbelievable year, especially after what happened the year prior [losing in two games in the first round]. We had 13 NCAA Division I commitments on that team, so how good we were had nothing to do with me wearing a ‘C’ because there are so many guys who could’ve been in that role.”
But it was him wearing it and he led by example just as much as he might’ve been vocal. His 77 points were the highest for an NCDC player at the time and that record stood for two years until future Hitman and current Michigan Tech player Patriks Marcinkevics became the first to break the 90-point mark with his historic 96-point season.
No one has come close to Burns’ league record 45 goals scored in that season.
“In my first Hitmen year, I had a decent year, but I mentally struggled and got into a funk early, especially the first 8-10 games, then I just geared up,” said Burns. “[Hitmen coaches] Toby Harris and Jim Hunt get the most out of everyone, and if they don’t, it probably won’t work out for you as a player. It is a grind – they push you hard and push you to your breaking point – but the ones who move on are the ones who understand what they’re doing. You’re on a tight schedule, you’re working hard and there’s really no time to mess around. Now that I know what I know in college, there was not a better place to prepare for the grind of college hockey than with the Hitmen.”
At Mercyhurst, Burns is excited to continue his studies in marketing (major) and management (minor). He has stayed strong with a cumulative GPA of 3.7, and is looking forward to seeing what his future holds both off and on the ice.
“Career-wise, I’m really looking into sales and marketing, but I’m going to kick the [hockey] can as long as I can. I have nothing pro-wise really concrete now, but I also still have my fifth year in 2024-25 available, so I’m not totally sure what my plans will be,” he added. “Right now, getting to Game 1 of this season, that is my focus. We really want to try to take home an Atlantic Hockey Association championship!”
The NCDC congratulates Mickey Burns on his outstanding college hockey career so far and wishes him and his Mercyhurst University teammates the very best of luck in 2023-24 and beyond.