Friday was unofficially Sean Burke Night at the San Diego Sports Arena. But four hours before the Gulls and the Kalamazoo Wings were scheduled to face off in an IHL game, Burke's new employers were in a frenzy.
The Canadian goaltender's work permit had expired, and Don Waddell, Gulls coach and general manager, had not received clearance from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to employ Burke.
What about all the publicity generated by signing the Canadian Olympic star? What about the T-shirts the Gulls had printed? What about the expectations of a crowd that turned out to be 9,180?
Nobody was disappointed. Burke was in goal for the Gulls' 7-4 victory over Kalamazoo.
"At 4:30, I didn't think we could play him," said Waddell, who had been in almost constant contact with a the Laguna Beach INS office, trying to renew Burke's work permit. "And if I didn't play him, I probably would have lost my job.
"We got the fax back today at (4:50 p.m.) with approval of his visa. Thank God we had helpful people helping us on the other side. It was very scary. At 3 o'clock today, I honestly didn't think we'd get it approved for tonight."
Waddell said immigration officials contacted him at 11 a.m. Thursday, telling him Burke was ineligible to play because his work permit had expired. If he were to play Friday, Burke could be deported. A stunned Waddell told only his secretary, Laura Epperson. Others, including Burke and new Gulls owner Fred Comrie, were not told of the crisis.
"I won't say who was up to it, but somebody pulled a fast one on us," said Waddell, hinting that it might have been another team that blew the whistle. "It's the first time something like that has happened. They told us he was an illegal alien.
"Nobody knew about it, just Laura and I. I didn't even tell Fred (Comrie). At three o'clock I honestly said I better come up with a good reason why he can't play tonight. I finally called Fred because I thought it was doubtful. What do you do? He said, 'I'll be right there,' and he got into his car and drove down."
But by the time Comrie--who bought 250 television spots promoting Burke's debut--had made the trip from his Del Mar office to the Gulls' offices, Waddell was told that his goalie probably would be cleared by the end of the day. Then the fax arrived 3 hours 15 minutes before Friday's 7:05 p.m. faceoff.
But only after Waddell and Epperson had to file affidavits of his contract, signed by witnessing attorneys.
"This is normally a three-week process," said Waddell. "We had to get a messenger service first thing this morning and send it up to Laguna Beach and then wait patiently for the inspector and supervisor get around to looking at it."
Said Burke, "I had to fill out a few forms (Thursday). And I knew there were a few things I had to get done right away. But they didn't tell me and I think it was good not to know.
"I just came to the game ready to play. I'm glad that they handled it that way."
After stopping 15 shots in the first period, Burke was nicked for four goals in the final two periods. But his offense, which came into the game with an IHL-best 300 goals, carried the load.
The Gulls took a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Len Hachborn (29th) and Larry Floyd (17th). They led 4-1 in the second period after Dmitri Kvartalnov (56th) and Steve Martinson (17th) scored. The Wings (71 points, 31-31-9 record) closed it to 4-2, but the goals (89 points, 41-24-7) added goals by Ron Duguay, Denny Lambert and Keith Gretzky (empty net).
"Early in the game, he was unbelievable," said Waddell of Burke, who stopped 35 of 39 shots. "They took it to us and he kept us in the game. I think he played pretty well."