In August, a month before the Mahoning Valley Phantoms’ 2008-09 season began, Austintown, Ohio, residents Steve, Patti and Chad Burbrink knew little of hockey and even less of the Phantoms.
That all changed with one phone call.
“I got a call in late August from my uncle, Dave Burbrink in Cincinnati, who is friends with the family of (Phantoms forward) Jordy Trottier, asking if I could host Jordy for the upcoming season,” explained host father Steve Burbrink.
“So we called the Phantoms to ask if we could do that, but we found out that he had already been assigned a housing family, but (housing director) Angie Mainhardt said the team would keep us in mind to host a different player if the opportunity came along.”
The chance would arrive sooner than the Burbrinks might have expected when another phone call came through just three days later, informing the family that the team had just acquired a player named Nick Shkreli from the Wichita Falls Wildcats.
Shkreli had requested a trade late in the offseason from the Wildcats to be able to play closer to his home in Romeo, Mich., so that he could be with his mother, Maria, who was battling a malignant tumor in her brain stem. The Burbrinks quickly agreed to host the then-18-year-old.
“We thought it would be great to have him here, so Nick arrived a few days after the team called us,” Steve said. “And things went well from the start. He came to our house and fit in nicely with our family and everyone was happy.”
For Shkreli, however, the happiness would be short-lived as he received word on Sept. 13 that his mother had slipped into a coma.
The second-year forward returned home immediately, just hours before Mahoning Valley’s preseason finale against the Motor City Machine and two days before the Phantoms departed for the season-opening Sherwood NAHL Showcase Tournament in Blaine, Minn.
Not long after Shkreli departed for Romeo, Maria lost her battle to cancer at age 46.
“We didn’t know if he was coming back,” remembered Burbrink. “When something so tragic happens to someone so young, you don’t know what they’re going to do. We talked back and forth with the Phantoms and eventually we just decided to wait to hear from Nick himself.
“After the funeral, I finally talked with him. We spoke for a few minutes and he told me, ‘My mother wanted me to play hockey,’ and he’d decided to come back.”
After missing all four games at the Showcase, Shkreli re-joined the Phantoms for their Oct. 3 contest at Motor City. He registered his first point with an assist on Stefan Salituro’s game-winner as Mahoning Valley prevailed, 2-1.
He has not missed a game since.
By his own admission, Shkreli was not 100 percent in the month of October, posting one goal and two assists through seven games that month.
“Over the summer, I didn’t get much of a chance to participate in off-season conditioning because I was with my mom most of the time,” said Shkreli.
Off the ice, Shkreli’s housing family did their part to support his return to high-level competition.
“I remember Nick telling me, ‘I’m not in ice-shape yet,’” recalled Burbrink, “and so he’d do a lot of running right here in our neighborhood just trying to catch up with everyone else.
“Once he started playing again, it did take him awhile to get going and to get settled again here with our family. Patti and I, for our part, did as much as we could to make him feel at home. One of the biggest things that helped Nick along was when Patti - not that she could ever replace Maria - took the role of ‘mom.’
“That relationship really helped him fit in here, and about a month after Nick was back, things started gelling really well. He just took off.”
“The Burbrinks really took me in and made me one of their own,” added Shkreli. “I was having a really tough time and they did an amazing job getting me through it. The way they helped me really picked me up, off and on the ice.”
Shkreli’s stats back up the claim, as he rolled off two goals and seven assists to quadruple his total points on the season during November.
“I got to the point where I was comfortable on the ice and in our systems, and that was a big turning point,” Shkreli said.
With his off-ice life starting to return to a state of relative normalcy, Shkreli’s on-ice performance got a shot in the arm at the end of 2008 when head coach Bob Mainhardt put Shkreli on a forward line with Trottier and Nick Kenney.
The newly formed combination got its bearings straight with one goal and one assist - both tallied by Shkreli - in a two-game series against the Alpena IceDiggers before they began a truly special run after the New Year.
In 27 games since the calendars rolled over to 2009, the Shkreli-Trottier-Kenney line has poured in 32 goals and 49 assists, good for 81 points - a 3.00 points per game average since the New Year.
The center currently stands as the Phantoms’ fourth-leading scorer with 11 goals and 32 assists in 52 games.
“After that first weekend we knew it was something special,” recalled Shkreli, “and from there we just went on a rampage.”
Shkreli’s 2009 tear led him to be named to the North Division team for the second-annual NAHL Top Prospects Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., in January. The league’s all-star event ended up being a meeting of both of Shkreli’s families just an hour away from his hometown of Romeo.
“Patti and I went up to the tournament where we met his grandmother, his cousins, a couple of his uncles, his brother and we got to meet his father, Rick,” said Dave Burbrink. “It was a big thrill for me to finally get together with him; we sat and talked for the whole weekend and had a great time.
“When Nick got picked for Top Prospects, I told him, ‘I want to meet your dad,’ and it couldn’t have been better.”
The January encounter meeting has led to more meetings between the two families, as in March, Rick, along with Nick’s brother, Marty, paid a visit to the Burbrink’s Austintown home the weekend the Phantoms took on the Traverse City North Stars.
“It was great to have everyone together that weekend with my dad and Steve sitting there on the couch and talking all the time,” said Nick. “It was neat to watch that, kind of like seeing two dads talking to each other. It was pretty cool.”
According to Steve Burbrink, the families already have plans to spend time together after the 2008-09 season draws to a close.
“We’ve already planned a summer trip to Michigan,” said Burbrink. “Rick owns a golf course in Dearborn so we’re going to go up there and play some golf and spend three or four days with the Shrkelis. So that will be pretty neat.”
In the six months since Nick moved in with the Burbrinks, he says their knowledge of hockey has come a long way.
“When I got there, they knew almost nothing about the game,” said Shkreli, “so I introduced them to the (Detroit) Red Wings and Hockeytown to get them started. Then they came to our first games at the Chevy Centre (against St. Louis) and they were hooked.
“Now Steve knows pretty much everything there is about hockey.”
Burbrink adds that having Nick around has not only won him over as a fan of hockey, but also a big supporter of the host family - or billeting - process in junior hockey.
“We wouldn’t trade the experience for the world,” Burbrink said, “and we’re definitely going to do it again next year. Not just for the hockey - though that’s a big part now - but more for the relationship you build with the guys that come through the program. They’re so focused and dedicated to their sport.
“To see the way some young people behave and then to see these guys and how driven they are to get to college and how motivated they are to hockey… just to observe that and the maturity that they pursue that goal with is a really neat thing.”
After he and his family’s first experience with billeting, Burbrink says he’d recommend it to others.
“I think it’s something that a lot of people may not know about. It’s a great opportunity for people to meet people, especially young people like this,” he said. “It’s grown into a family bond in our house.
“I know a couple years down the road, I’ll be watching college hockey and I’ll see Nick right there on my television. And that’ll be a big thrill for all of us here.”