Andre Burakovsky makes his way to the locker room, swinging his arms and belting out spurts of songs like “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco. As he makes his way to his stall and takes a seat, he looks around the room with wide eyes he takes off his gear.
From the way he carries himself, it’s easy to tell the 24-year-old is still just a kid. He enjoys burgers on off days and the occasional scoop of chocolate ice cream. He sees players like Tom Wilson as father figures, and is playful with his teammates, with guys like Chandler Stephenson tapping Burakovsky’s nose with his gloves as they get off the ice.
“Just him,” Stephenson laughed about what “Burky” brings to the locker room. “He’s one of those guys who always has a funny face on or laughing or smiling. He just always fun to have around, just kind of one of those guys everybody likes to be around, cause he’s always in a happy mood.”
Even as the happy-go-lucky kid in the locker room, he’s soft-spoken when it comes to his road to the NHL, shy when it comes to talking about himself.
Burakovsky was born into a hockey family; he’s the son of Robert Burakovsky, a former NHL forward who played 23 games for the Senators and went on to pursue a pro career throughout Europe. His grandfather, uncle and brother also competed.
Burakovsky grew up in Malmo, Sweden by the sea, knowing he wanted to grow up and pursue a career in sports – whether that be hockey or something else.
Even as a child, he wouldn’t hold back on himself; he’d push himself through each practice and spend the summers putting in extra work and perfecting his shot. He also admitted last year that at times, he’d be hard on himself growing up. That determination, however, led to him becoming one of the NHL’s top prospects as he impressed playing with the SHL’s Malmo Redhawks.
Washington wouldn’t hesitate, taking him 23rd overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, and following an impressive campaign with the OHL’s Erie Otters, where he put up 41 goals and 87 points in 57 games, he joined the NHL ranks the following season.
“It was huge. NHL is something you dream of,” Burakovsky said. “When you’re young, to get picked in the NHL draft, obviously that means everything for you. It’s a lot of fun and unbelievable feeling.”
In his rookie campaign with Washington, Burakovsky finished with nine goals and 22 points in 53 appearances, and also put up three goals and seven points in 13 games with their AHL-affiliate Hershey Bears.
And with that freshman year, he quickly became a fan-favorite, taken aback at first by seeing his name on the back of people’s jerseys, but now used to it.
While his performance was fine considering his rookie status, and despite his lovable status in the locker room and off the ice, his numbers wouldn’t improve much as he continued on Washington. Despite talent and highly-touted skill, he couldn’t quite find the back of the net or consistently put up production.
Then, injuries took their toll. In Feb. 2017, Burakovsky would suffer a broken hand that kept him out for over a month. The following year, he’d be sidelined for the first two months of the 2017-18 campaign with a fractured thumb.
Since that, he’d been unable to truly put up numbers, and it led to him being in and out of the lineup, which in turn, led to a lack of confidence.
“I get real hard on myself because I know what I can do, I know what I’m capable to do, so that just get real hard on myself to create something and get going. When you start thinking about mistakes and what you’re doing wrong, it’s tough to go out on the next shift and do something good... I’ve always been hard on myself, even when I was nine years old and had a bad game, I was pissed at myself.” -Andre Burakovsky, Dec. 2017
Burakovsky would continue to skate hard at practice and do what he could to find his game and consistency while facing mental roadblocks at the same time. He’d have his moments, where he’d go on a hot streak for three or four games before going cold again.
This carried into the postseason, but in Game 2 of the opening-round series vs. Columbus, things again took a turn for the worse when an upper-body injury required surgery, holding him out until the Eastern Conference Final.
Still struggling to find twine, Burakovsky stepped up when it mattered – in Game 7 against the Lightning, his two-goal performance lifted Washington to a 4-0 victory, clinching the Prince of Wales trophy and a trip to the Cup Final, where the Caps would inevitably win their first title.
However, it’s not often that he thinks of that moment, of those two critical tallies and the most important game of his NHL career. He’s casual about it, focused on living in the now.
“It’s a new season. That’s in the past, that was good thing and fun thing to get two goals in a Game 7. Obviously that’s a big thing to do,” Burakovsky shrugged, smiling slightly. “I mean, it’s in the past, it’s new season and playoffs soon, and what happened in the past, it’s history. It’s definitely something I can remember my whole life, but right now, my focus is on something different.”
He did say, however, that his confidence has improved. In the summer, Burakovsky started meeting with a sports psychologist, and said at the start of the year, he started feeling more confident in himself, especially after his sessions.
Still, the season carried a lot of pressure; not only was he subject to constant trade rumors, but he’s also on an expiring $3 million-a-year deal that will see him become a restricted free agent with an organization that has little cap space.
But he didn’t – and still doesn’t – focus too much on it.
“To be honest, I didn’t care much about it. If I was gone, I was gone, and if I’m here, I’m happy to remain here,” Burakovsky said. “It’s out of my control. I wasn’t thinking about it and I didn’t care too much about it.”
Despite saying there’s not a lot of weight that was taken off his shoulders, days before and following the trade deadline, Burakovsky has put up four goals and seven points in 11 games.
In the last four games, he’s gone scoreless, but his fourth line has been finding its rhythm and making an impact, as Nic Dowd, Travis Boyd and Stephenson interchange.
“I’m feeling good about my game. I like the way I’m playing, I like the way I’m playing since long time back. It’s been good for me,” Burakovsky said. “Obviously helps your mind every time you walk off the ice and tell yourself you had a good game.”
As he continues to focus on building his self-esteem to its highest level, especially as the Caps approach another playoff run where they hope to repeat, Burakovsky said he’s been able to work on reflecting more and has been able to work on how he approaches poor performances and tough games.
He said it’s natural, and that he’s been able to handle it well with a new mentality.
“It’s gonna happen, when you’re not feeling the best, it’s gonna happen. We’re human,” Burakovsky said. “Whenever that happens, you’re just gonna go back and work on your game and see what you like about it, start over and focus on [next] one... This year has been good. I think I’m strong.”
Looking back, Burakovsky laughed at what advice he’d probably give to his former self, as well as players who may be in his skates, training for the NHL now.
He recognizes that he’s fortunate, and that he’s ready to keep going with his career with a renewed vigor and outlook on his experiences so far.
“Always [try] to have fun. At the end of the day, at this point, you’re leading a good life and don’t have too much to complain about,” Burakovsky said. “Go out and do your best every single day, prove something to yourself and your teammates and be a good teammate every single day.”