EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 11, 2013

They share love of Umass Lowell hockey

Father, daughter fighting leukemia make trip to Frozen Four

By Bill Burt
bburt@eagletribune.com

---- — Methuen’s Sebastian Bongiorno loves college hockey and, especially, the UMass Lowell Riverhawks.

For nearly two decades he’s been a season ticket-holder, vowing in the early 1990s to never give Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs another cent. And the ride the Riverhawks have taken him on last year and particularly this year, playing in today’s Frozen Four game against Yale at 4:30 p.m. (on ESPN) has been special.

“(UMass Lowell is) so good and so exciting to watch,” Bongiorno said. “Their defense is amazing. Their goaltending is amazing. They are a complete team. ... I’ve been waiting almost 20 years for a (Lowell) team this good.”

But, there is another kind of love — one that supersedes hockey — like the love Sebastian has for his daughter, Danielle Bongiorno.

Father and daughter are in Pittsburgh today for the NCAA Div. 1 semifinal to root on the Riverhawks. Their voyage to western Pennsylvania — and we’re not talking about the lengthy 11-hour car ride on Tuesday — is an inspiring one.

About a month earlier, Danielle was in the hospital being treated for leukemia. She was diagnosed on Oct. 16, 2012, after going to the emergency room for what she thought was a urinary tract infection.

It was leukemia, a treatable form. She dropped everything and immediately began aggressive chemotherapy treatments, needing to be hospitalized for long stretches, including a recent six-week stay.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I’d be going to Pittsburgh,” said Sebastian, who retired as a lieutenant from the Lawrence Fire Department in 2005 after 32 years.

“It just wouldn’t have been right, with Danielle sick and possibly in the hospital,” he said. “It was going to be myself and my wife, Linda, who is also a big fan. But I didn’t get any nibbles. Nobody bought them.”

The irony is that this was the first year Danielle and her fiancée, Caleb Hand, bought season tickets, expecting to join her parents for most of the home games at the Tsongas Center.

“I love college hockey, like my dad,” said Danielle, who graduated in September from UMass Lowell with a degree in education. “We were planning on going to a lot of games. I ended up making about three of them. But they were a big deal for me, because it got me out of the house and it was something fun to do.”

Two weeks ago, Danielle was back in the hospital while dealing with aggressive chemo treatments. UMass Lowell was playing in the Northeast Regionals in Manchester, N.H.

Her dad had tickets, but instead chose to watch the game in his daughter’s hospital on Friday night with his wife and her fiancée.

“It was wild,” recalled Sebastian. “We had pizza, wings and we were yelling like crazy. It was an incredible game (Lowell beat red-hot Wisconsin, 6-1).”

There was a problem on Saturday night. The game was on ESPNU, a station the hospital TV didn’t get. So what did Sebastian, do?

“We decided we’d spend the night with my daughter in the hospital and we would burn the game on a (DVD) and I’d go back Sunday morning and watch it with her,” he said. “The problem was we didn’t want to know the score. We wanted to be surprised.”

He got two text messages from his “college hockey” friends, but he never read the texts. Danielle simply shut off her phone and broke off all contact outside of her hospital room.

“It was very hard not knowing the score on Saturday night,” recalled Danielle. “We honestly went to bed not knowing if they won. We wanted to be surprised.”

Her dad came to hospital with the DVD of the game in his hands on Sunday morning and they watched the game as if it was live. The Bongiornos didn’t hold back their cheering as the Riverhawks dominated the game in the 2-0 win, earning its first ever berth to the Frozen Four.

“It was incredible,” said Sebastian of the celebrating in the hospital room.

About a week later, the news got even better.

“Danielle’s doctors said she could go to Pittsburgh,” said Sebastian. “It was incredible news. We have to be back (by Sunday) because she has an important bone marrow biopsy on Monday to hopefully confirm the leukemia is in remission.”

A huge traffic jam in Connecticut on Tuesday added about an hour to the trip, but Danielle wasn’t complaining.

“This is a real special trip,” she said, sounding emotional. “I can’t believe I’m here. It’s the first trip I’ve taken in a long time. I’m at the Frozen Four. ... But the best part is I’m here with my father.”

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.