Derrick Burnett is a full-time second lieutenant assisting the U.S. Air Force with rocket launches from Florida and a weekend warrior for the Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) of the ECHL.
Burnett made his pro hockey debut for the Solar Bears playing right wing, appropriately enough, during Veterans Day weekend in Orlando. Burnett's game Saturday was his first competitive hockey since Air Force finished the 2011 season with a 2-1 loss to Yale in the NCAA Tournament.
"It was nice to get back on the ice," Burnett told Playbook. "It takes a few shifts to get back into it, felt like I had my feet back under me. But being in game shape can't be replicated no matter how much you train."
The Solar Bears wore camouflage-style uniforms, but the opposition Elmira Jackals and Gwinnett Gladiators didn't bother paying any deference to this Solar Bears' rookie and Air Force Academy graduate.
"They didn't cut me a break," he said. "Maybe I should have reminded them I was in the Air Force."
Burnett serves as range-control officer instructor "getting all the new officers spun up and prepared for what we do on a day of launch" at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the 45th Space Wing, 1st Range Operation Squadron. He also acts as a liaison between the Air Force and clients such as NASA and the U.S. Space Alliance whenever there are rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center or the Air Force station.
A Corona, Calif., native, Burnett, 25, took an unconventional road to becoming a part-time hockey player. He played roller hockey as a boy before joining a traveling midget ice hockey all-star team in Los Angeles at age 14.
After graduating high school, he played two years of junior hockey in Alberta, Canada, and took the SAT several times.
Eventually, he improved his skills and scores enough to earn an Academy scholarship and a spot on its hockey team.
He had 33 goals in 149 games with Air Force, graduated with a degree in management and has 3 1/2 years remaining on his current five-year Air Force commitment.
Burnett thought his playing career had ended once he was stationed in Florida and was unsuccessful in his attempt to land a spot with the Florida Everblades, who play nearly four hours away in Fort Myers.
Burnett contacted Solar Bears ownership after the ECHL franchise was awarded to Orlando in 2011 (the original Orlando Solar Bears played in the IHL from 1995-2001).
"I was really excited there was going to be a team so close," Burnett said. Once the team hired its coach, former NHL player Drake Berehowsky, "they expressed interest and saw me on the ice and invited me to camp."
The commute from Burnett's home on Florida's Space Coast to the Solar Bears' practice facility north of Orlando takes about an hour. His biggest challenge is balancing his work schedule and military responsibilities with the time needed for physical conditioning and practice. Burnett needed written permission from the Air Force to play even part time with Orlando.
His plan is to play in the team's home weekend games this season and be available, if needed, for weeknight contests. That schedule suits the Solar Bears just fine.
"I can't be every place at once," Burnett said. "Being around the guys makes it more comfortable."
While the NHL season sits in limbo and his teammates work toward moving up to either the Houston Aeros or Minnesota Wild, the Solar Bears' NHL parent team, Burnett couldn't be happier with his hockey career.
"If I didn't have my military commitment, I'd want to be playing in this league," he said. "It was luck of the draw that Orlando got this team."
The Solar Bears (6-5-2-1) and Burnett return to the ice against Kalamazoo on Saturday.