Most Islanders fans treated Brendan Burke as one of their own from the day he arrived at MSG Networks six years ago — even if he was from New Jersey, of all places.
Then only 32 but with a decade of dues-paying in the minor leagues behind him, he showed quickly that he was ready for the bright lights of NHL play-by-play.
But over the past year, Long Island has become home more than ever, because he and his wife, Mary, now have made it their actual home.
No offense to previous stops in the likes of Wheeling, West Virginia, Peoria, Illinois, Utica and Brooklyn, but . . . Huntington looks like a keeper.
The Burkes bought their first house there last autumn and plan to put down roots with their three children, daughter Quinn, 8, and sons Liam, 5, and Colin, who turns 2 next month.
Mary, who grew up in upstate Herkimer, met Brendan at Ithaca College and married him in 2012, never had so much as visited Long Island until a few years ago. She quickly was sold.
“When we came out here, it was like, ‘I want to live here,’” she said. “This has really been the only place, and we've moved a lot, where I felt like I want to stay. I don't want to move anymore. It feels like home.”
Said Brendan, “We envision having our kids graduating high school here; that's kind of the plan.”
As the Islanders get set to open their 2022-23 season on Thursday, Burke has been around long enough to become part of the local scenery.
Finally being based on Long Island has helped drive home how recognizable and popular he is.
At a recent Jimmy Eat World concert at Mulcahy’s in Wantagh, Mary counted seven or eight people who came up to say hello. Fan encounters at Home Depot have become so common they are a running joke in the family.
“I don't know what it is about Home Depot,” Mary said, “but it's kind of funny.”
SPORTS MEDIA ROOTS
Having a famous play-by-play-man father is common in sports announcing — from Jack and Joe Buck to Marv and Kenny Albert to Ian and Noah Eagle and beyond.
Burke’s background is a twist on that tale: His father, Don, has had a long career in sports media, but as a print journalist, including stints covering the Yankees in the early 1990s and Mets in the mid-2000s. He currently is a sports copy editor for the New York Post.
His father’s job afforded Burke opportunities not available to other young fans, such as watching batting practice from the dugout and attending All-Star Games and World Series.
“I didn’t realize that not everybody gets to do those kinds of things until much later in life,” he said.
It also taught him that sports is more than a mere pastime.
“I saw it as an industry,” he said. “I saw it as people that made their living talking and writing and living sports.”
Two of those people were John Sterling and Michael Kay. When young Brendan found himself sitting between them one day in the Yankee Stadium radio booth at age 8 or 9, he had a clear vision for his career path.
“Once I figured out that I can get paid for talking about it, it seemed like a good job for me,” he said.
Said Don, “He was amazed that they got paid to do that. I kind of directed him that way. I said, ‘Well, that's where the money is, not what I'm doing.’ I think it's one of the first times, the only time, that he actually listened to me.”
While Burke paid more attention to the Yankees than other teams because of his father’s job, he also learned how not to root for specific outcomes.
“I was raised with ‘no cheering in the press box,’ ” he said. “That was my childhood. I wasn’t buying a jersey sitting in the stands and cheering. It was the opposite. It was, ‘Be as quiet as you can while you're watching this game, because there are people doing work.’ ”
Even before he moved to New Jersey at age 6, Burke caught the hockey bug. Don was working in Milwaukee at the time, covering the minor-league Admirals.
Brendan and his older sister, Meagan, would attend games with their mother, Jane. Brendan first put on skates as a 4-year-old.
By the time he got to New Jersey, he was centering a youth hockey line that also featured Paul Stastny and Leo Kasatonov, the sons of two Devils, Peter Stastny and Alexei Kasatonov.
“I don't know what happened to that Stastny kid, but Brendan's doing good,” Don said with a laugh. (Stastny has been playing in the NHL since 2006.)
Don credited Jane for juggling hockey and other duties while he lived the life of a traveling baseball writer.
Burke got good enough to play in high school at Paramus Catholic and on the club team at Ithaca.
Why Ithaca? Burke originally assumed he would go to Syracuse, and his father had him pegged for Fordham. Both schools are known for producing sports announcers.
But Burke fell in love with Ithaca, which has its own impressive sports media legacy, and he liked the idea of being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
“It felt like there were a million Brendan Burkes at Syracuse,” he said. “I went to Ithaca and they said, ‘You can be on the air next week.’ ”
It paid off — eventually. Burke worked the minor-league circuit in places like Wheeling, Peoria and Utica, helping with everything from media relations to travel arrangements to laundry in addition to announcing.
At one point, Brendan and Mary were engaged to be married but did not see one another for six months, while Mary went to nursing school and lived in New Jersey with Jane.
The best part for Burke was the creative license to grow through trial and error.
“Did I think I was ready for the NHL at 26 years old? Absolutely,” he said. “Looking back on it, was I? No . . . I worked my way through and I learned a lot on the fly.”
EYE ON ISLES
Burke got his shot at the big leagues after Howie Rose, who had been doing dual duty on Mets radio and Islanders TV, gave up the latter in 2016.
Rose had known of Burke’s work through Don, and Rose recommended him to MSG along with Steve Mears, who now calls Penguins games.
Burke landed the job largely as an unknown to fans, but it did not take long for him to begin getting rave reviews.
Butch Goring, his analyst, said their partnership has been “great,” and added that Burke’s dues-paying background is a plus.
“Obviously, I'm very sympathetic to people who have done their time, who didn’t walk in with a silver spoon, so to speak,” Goring said.
It did not take long for network executives to catch on. NBC gave him a prominent role on national telecasts, and Turner made him its No. 2 play-by-play man behind Kenny Albert last season.
“He’s just run with it,” Rose said, “to the point where right now, name the top five broadcasters in the National Hockey League and he's got to be in the conversation, right?”
BACK TO BASEBALL?
As much he loves hockey, Burke’s roots with the Yankees run deep, so when he was asked earlier this season to fill in for Sterling, it resonated.
Burke said being around the team connects him to his childhood, with many of the announcers and writers from that era still on the job.
“I'm 38 years old, and I've been doing nationally televised hockey, and I walk in there and feel like a child.” he said. “It's just a weird feeling.”
He worked 12 road games, one of several fill-ins as Sterling, 84, cut back to preserve his health and energy.
Burke’s work was well-received, which has led to speculation about an even larger fill-in role in 2023 and perhaps being asked to succeed Sterling if he decides to retire in the coming years.
“My hope was to get one game,” Burke said. “I just wanted one game. That would have been just to say I did it, to sit in that chair that I sat next to so many times.
“And then it kind of grew. I wanted one game, they offered me five. I did the five and they said, ‘How about a few more?’ I wound up doing 12. And that's as far as it's gone.”
Burke said he has not spoken to anyone at WFAN about next season or beyond. He said he would be open to filling in again next summer, but with Sterling still on the job, there is no reason to think about anything more than that.
Still, eventually someone will have to follow Sterling when he decides to retire.
Rose knows the pros and cons of calling two sports firsthand.
“It’s very hard when you're in the prime of your career to turn down something that's an absolute plum,” Rose said. “How do you say ‘no’ to that? But you pay a price.”
Don’s assessment of the sort of dual-sport life Rose used to live? “I already told [Brendan] that’s nuts. You can't do that.”
What if he someday had to choose between the two sports?
“I think at this point,” Burke said, “I would consider myself a hockey guy.”
Until about a year ago, Mary worked as an oncology nurse, before giving it up when Burke’s work for Turner added to the family’s logistical challenges.
“It seems kind of silly that she had to give up a job helping people with cancer so that I can talk about hockey,” Brendan said.
Mary has gained a following among Islanders fans for having good-natured Twitter fun at Brendan’s expense.
“I always say I'm keeping his ego in check,” she said, laughing.
Said Brendan, “I understand that fans like when broadcasters and athletes look like normal people . . . And I am a very, very normal person. So she kind of makes sure that everybody knows that.”
Entering Season No. 7, the Burkes have found a comfortable personal and professional niche in the heart of Islanders Country.
“It has far exceeded my expectations,” Brendan said of his time at MSG. “When you come in, it's, ‘I'm happy to be here.’ It's the realization of a dream.
“But the reality of it is, it's the starting point, right? You finally got to the starting line. So now here we are six years in and it feels like it should feel.
“It feels amazing. And it still feels as exciting as it did six years ago.”