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Local teen pursues his dream in Canada

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Seventeen-year-old Bill Burgess traveled 1,400 miles last fall just to play on a high school sports team.

Of course, he would say, it's not just any sport. It's hockey.

Burgess, a hockey fan since he was a kid, decided to trade Florida's sun and sand for Canada's snow and ice his senior year in high school so he would have a shot at playing on a college team next year.

"Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to play hockey in college," said Burgess, speaking last week from Stanstead College, a small, private boarding school just north of the Vermont-Quebec border. "I knew there was no way I could play hockey in college from Florida. Now, at least I have a chance."

Burgess is playing with aspiring Olympic champions and professional players, an opportunity he never would have had in Florida.

Although a handful of Americans attend Stanstead each year and the school has even had a few students from Florida, this year was the first time they enrolled there to play hockey. Burgess and Jason Latta, a 12th-grader from Lakeland, both started at Stanstead last fall.

"It's a first for us: hockey players from Florida," said Andy Elliot, Stanstead's director of admissions. "When we think of Florida, we think of tennis, swimming and golf."

Most high schools in the South do not have hockey teams, but students who live in Canada and the northern part of the United States, particularly New England, can play junior varsity and varsity hockey at school.

Stanstead coach Mike McNamara said youth hockey leagues and camps are cropping up in Florida as interest grows in professional teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning. But he said those who want to play hockey at a Division I college need to start early and consistently play.

"It takes the best kid in Florida to compete here," said McNamara, who met Burgess at a hockey camp in Oldsmar. "For a long time, there was no hockey there because of the climate. But now, hockey is always played indoors. There's no reason Florida can't produce players for the National Hockey League like anywhere else."

Burgess, a senior at the $18,000-a-year college preparatory school, doesn't have grandiose dreams of playing in the NHL, but he does want to join a college team, even if he has to sit on the bench some of the time. He has applied to almost a dozen colleges in the United States, mostly Ivy League schools that have Division I hockey teams.

"Playing hockey in college would be like playing in the NHL for me," Burgess said. "It would be like a dream come true."

McNamara describes Burgess, a right wing and alternate captain on the team, as one of the school's best defensive players. Last week he helped lead the school to the league championship for the first time in the school's 125-year history.

"I don't know if his dream will be realized or not," said Burgess' mother, Colette. "But it's an opportunity you can't pass up."

McNamara said Burgess "got run over" by other players when he arrived at Stanstead last fall but has improved dramatically in Canada, where hockey is played aggressively. But McNamara said that still doesn't guarantee Burgess a spot on a college team.

"Someone will have to see Bill as a project," McNamara said. "They will have to continue the apprenticeship. He could be a reserve player. He's a hard-working and determined individual. He'll be the first one on the ice and the last one to leave."

Burgess was born in Massachusetts but because his father, William, was in the military, the family has lived everywhere from Alaska to Florida, with stops in Arizona and Maryland, among other places. It was in Alaska, at age 6, that Burgess learned to skate.

His father, now a Pinellas County prosecutor, his mother and 15-year-old sister, Alison, live in Seminole.

Burgess played baseball, took karate and skied before trying hockey. He joined whatever youth hockey leagues he could find in Florida and attended camps in England, Canada and New England.

He attended eighth grade at Seminole Middle School and three years in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School before heading to Stanstead, a school of 210 students, to play for the Spartans.

"It's like half his personality," Colette Burgess said. "Bill changes when he plays hockey. He's normally quiet and shy. But when he plays, he hums a tune and there's a skip in his step. Hockey makes him one of the guys."

Burgess is waiting to hear whether he got into Dartmouth, Brown or Harvard, among other colleges, and says he probably will study engineering.

With a report card full of A's, a 1590 on his SAT and the distinction of being a National Merit Scholarship finalist, Burgess' teachers say he is likely to get into one of the top schools in the nation.

Whether he'll get to play hockey there, though, is another story.

"Ultimately, it comes down to whether you can play the game or not," Burgess said. "But I knew I had to try. Otherwise, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life."