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On a 140-acre farm outside Onoway, a small town (pop. 1029) in Alberta, Canada, Troy Bourke learned to skate on an ice rink his father built. On that same farm, Bourke learned to ride a horse and rope a steer.
Naturally athletic, Bourke could skate by age 2. By 4, he was competing in a hockey league against kids who were two and three years older.
Roping, however, took time. It took days for Bourke learn how to throw a rope, weeks to learn to rope a dummy steer while standing on the ground, and months to learn to rope a live steer while riding at full gallop.
From the day he picked up a rope to the day he could lasso a steer, Bourke spent hundreds of hours practicing technique and mastering the skill.
“The process of putting it all together paid off after a year of practice,” said Bourke, a 22-year-old Rampage forward. “Once you get it, you never lose it.”
Bourke may be one of the few players in the American Hockey League – if not the only one – who can rope a steer. In the offseason, he ropes for fun on his father’s farm.
“Going back home and roping,” Bourke said, “takes my mind off the stress of the pro life.”
On Wednesday, with the Rampage on break, Bourke attended the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo for the first time.
“It was an incredible opportunity to watch another rodeo with my friends and see some of the best talent in roping,” he said. “I wish I could have watched some of the events with my father. But all in all, it was a great time.”
In his youth, Bourke and his family bonded at the Calgary Stampede, an annual 10-day event that features one of the world’s largest rodeos, concerts, agricultural competitions, and chuckwagon racing. Billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth,” the Calgary Stampede attracts more than 1 million visitors every July.
Roping runs deep in Bourke’s family. His father, Kevin, has been roping for 30 years. Bourke’s uncle, Wayne, built indoor and outdoor roping arenas on his farm in Onoway. Troy attended roping school at the farm and spent a lot of time in the arenas, competing against uncles and cousins in rodeo jackpots.
The desire to rope never left. When the family gathers for recreational rodeo, Bourke competes in team roping. He is the header, the cowboy who chases the steer and ropes the head. A partner comes from behind as the heeler and lassos the heels.
On a good run, Bourke’s team can tie up the steer in eight seconds. The best in the world can do it in five seconds or less. Kolton Schmidt, an acquaintance of Bourke’s from Alberta, ranked among the Top 10 headers in the December Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings.
Bourke and Schmidt faced each other in youth hockey. They crossed paths a few times on Wayne Bourke’s farm. Bourke had wanted to watch his friend at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, but Schmidt completed his competition while the Rampage were on the road.
“My dad and his dad know each other well,” Bourke said. “I met him at roping school. But I haven’t seen him probably eight to 10 years.”
How difficult is roping? Kevin likens the sport to golf, which confounds and humbles even the world’s top pros. Consider Schmidt: He and partner Shay Carroll struggled at the San Antonio Rodeo and failed to reach the semifinals.
“As good as they are – and professionals do it every day for a living – they can miss, too,” Kevin said. “You wonder, ‘Gee, I thought these guys would never miss.’ But they do.”
Not everyone in Bourke’s immediate family ropes. But everyone plays – or played – hockey. Father Kevin competes in a senior league, and Bourke’s older brother, Brad, plays for the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the Southern Professional Hockey League. His sister, Karla, started at the University of Alberta and continues to play with her mother, Michelle, against teams from other small towns. His second sister, Randi, played hockey in high school and enjoyed figure skating.
A farm equipment salesman, Kevin played youth hockey and never wanted to stop. He built one rink for his children, then a larger one.
“It was about 40 feet wide by 120 feet long, which is a decent size,” he said. “Troy got to spend hours and hours out there before he went to school. He played with a cousin all day Saturday. They were on the rink whenever he was home.”
Bourke wanted to do whatever his father did. So he drove a tractor and learned to bale hay. He rode a horse and eventually learned to rope. Bourke remembers his first jackpot. He was around 13, a bundle of nerves and excitement. He took three runs.
“I missed all three,” Bourke said. “I was pretty disappointed. But I had to laugh it off and start practicing again.”
As he grew, roping gave way to hockey. But Bourke never lost his love for chasing steers. When the Rampage season ends, he’ll head home to the farm, round up the family, and grab a rope.