North Andover, Mass. - Merrimack hockey recently added another team member to its nationally ranked roster. The warriors welcomed their newest teammate on the ice at the Fenway Park Holiday Skate on January 3rd. Eleven year old Tim Burke woke up at six o'clock in the morning before the 7pm event. "I was so excited to meet the team, I couldn't sleep. It ended up being even better than I expected," he said.
Tim is undergoing treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and was paired up with the Merrimack hockey team by Team IMPACT, a local organization which matches children who have critical illnesses with college athletic teams.
Team IMPACT first approached Tim, who resides in South Boston, about joining the Boston University Terriers. But the young hockey fan had begun following Merrimack's rise through the national rankings last year, and he wanted to be a warrior.
"We've welcomed him with open arms," said sophomore assistant captain Jordan Heywood (Regina, SK). "We want to give him courage, and something to fight for. We're there for him."
Tim is in the middle of 2.5 years of chemotherapy. As the warriors burst onto the national hockey scene last year, Tim was fighting his own battle. After being diagnosed with leukemia, he developed a severe infection last winter which landed him in the Children's Hospital intensive care unit, and in August he fractured his foot and back, as a result of the bone-weakening chemotherapy.
Head coach Mark Dennehy explained that this relationship with Tim could "spark emotions some players have not dealt with," and that there were support systems in place for those players.
Timmy joins the team in the locker room before games, makes up secret handshakes with players, and frequently texts his older teammates. He describes the team as very nice, and very funny. "This is like any friendship that evolves over time," said Heywood. "He'll support us at our big games, and we'll go visit him if he's in the hospital. He gives us perspective, and a reason to dig a little deeper."
Tim's treatment often prevents him from attending games, but he sent a text message to Heywood before the January 13 Hockey East match-up against the University of Maine. "I said good luck, and to score a goal for me. I was just trying to give him some motivation," said Tim.
Heywood scored a goal in the first period, in what would go on to become Merrimack's 12th win of the season.
"The morning after the skate at Fenway, he told me, 'I've only been a warrior for twelve hours and I already love it,'" said Tim's mother, Mary Kelly Burke. "It's nice to see him smile again."
Tim, who predicts that Merrimack will win the Hockey East Championships, has big dreams of his own. He is currently applying to Boston College High School, "where Joe Cannata and Coach went." He hopes to one day be the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.
In the meantime, Tim has already won the friendship and respect of his teammates. "Tim is an amazing kid with a huge heart. He's always smiling and happy and it's contagious. I've been able to hang out with him a couple times and it's always something I look forward to," said junior Kyle Bigos (Upland, CA).
"There's no question that the players get more out of this than Tim," said Coach Dennehy. "It allows them to remember when they were his age. I think life wears you down quite a bit, and this childlike approach is beneficial. It takes them back to when they played hockey for the fun of it."