NORTH ANDOVER — To no one’s surprise, two major college hockey polls have ranked Mary Burke’s alma mater and defending national champion Boston College as the No. 1 team in the country just two weeks into the season.
She respectfully disagrees.
“In my book, Merrimack College is No. 1,” said Burke, who lives with her family in South Boston. “And it’s not even close.”
Is she crazy, with Merrimack’s record a pedestrian 2-3-1 thus far? Or is she confused, still thinking about last January when Merrimack was indeed ranked No. 1 for two weeks?
None of the above.
The real answer is that Mary Burke is biased. And their play, which hasn’t been eye-opening thus far in this early 2012-13 season, has nothing to do with her ranking.
Her only child is on the Merrimack team ... at least that’s what he’s been made to feel like for over a year now.
Timmy Burke, 12, has been in a two-year battle with leukemia and Merrimack “drafted” him through a program called “Team Impact,” which formally matches up kids with life-threatening diseases with college teams.
This match wasn’t like most of the others. Timmy demanded to be part of the Merrimack hockey program — yes, demanded.
“Timmy’s cousin Devin Driscoll goes to Merrimack and when he was first diagnosed and in the hospital, Devin brought Timmy a signed jersey from the Merrimack team. Timmy was really impressed,” Mary Burke said. “Later, when we heard about Team Impact, they talked about pairing him up with a team from closer to where we live in Boston. Merrimack is about 40 to 50 minutes away. There is traffic.
“But none of that mattered to Timmy,” his mother said. “He wasn’t going to be a part of this if he couldn’t be drafted by Merrimack. Of course, he won.”
Timmy is the only child to Mary and Charles Burke. Timmy is a typical kid from South Boston. He has a vivacious personality and he loves sports.
“Baseball is his favorite,” his mother said. “Of course, he loves the Red Sox. But he loves playing baseball, too ... in Little League and all of that.”
She vividly recalled when “typical” and “Timmy” left their lexicon. The date was Jan. 13, 2011.
“He had a fever over the weekend and I gave him Advil,” she said. “He really was very achy, but we thought it was just the flu. He got worse, but because of a snowstorm we wouldn’t be able to get to our pediatrician for three or four days. We ended up taking him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and they ended up sending us over to Children’s Hospital.”
The blood tests at St. Elizabeth’s showed Timmy had a bad infection and remarkably didn’t have any white blood cells, a big red flag. Within three hours of being at Children’s Hospital he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“It was really rough at the beginning,” Mary Burke said. “Timmy spent 10 days in ICU, taking every antibiotic imaginable trying to get through the infection. There were times he was touch-and-go.”
Chemotherapy and steroids were and are as much a part of his life as eating and breathing. So are the aches and pains that come with it. Then along came a medicine: Team Impact and Merrimack College.
Team Impact was founded and funded by a group of friends, colleagues and associates many of whom went to college together at Tufts University, many of whom played sports in college, many of whom have had business dealings with each other. The Burkes heard about the organization while Timmy was being treated at Dana Farber.
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy also had heard rumblings about Team Impact.
“Three different people in one week had incredible things to say about the organization and what they do,” Dennehy said. “It’s like a stock tip or a recruit. If you hear it from one person, that’s one thing. But when several people say the same thing, it makes you think.”
By the time Team Impact came to North Andover to make their pitch to Dennehy, Merrimack was all in.
“They had me at hello,” Dennehy said. “I immediately knew this was for us. I knew our team would leap on this.”
Merrimack officially “drafted” Timmy at a Team Impact ceremony with other kids and college teams last January at the Frozen Fenway weekend at Fenway Park, a year after his diagnosis. The captains of every team announce their “draft” pick and they are given a team jersey to immediately wear.
The bright yellow Merrimack Warriors jersey fit Timmy like a glove.
“That was a great night,” says Timmy.
The college teams are expected to cull a relationship with their “draftee,” keeping in contact with them throughout the season, inviting them to games and practices.
“I drop him off in front the rink at 5 p.m. (before a 7 p.m. game) and he wants no part of me,” Mary Burke said. “He knows his way around the rink over there. He hangs around inside the locker room before the game, as if he’s on the team.”
According to Timmy’s mother, Merrimack has gone above and beyond expectations.
“It is unbelievable,” she said. “Sure, he’s been to almost all of the home games and some practices. But what that team has done for Timmy, especially during some tough times, especially when he’s been on steroids. They put a smile on his face.”
Last weekend, when Merrimack was in Alaska for their two games, Timmy received dozens of texts every day from various players. Better yet, this past summer while Timmy needed to be in a wheelchair because of the medication. Merrimack players stopped by his house several times to take him out, including one trip to a Red Sox game.
More than half the team participated in the Jimmy Fund Walk as the “Warrior Walkers,” which was a name Timmy came up with. They all wore yellow T-shirts bearing the name, raising $8,000 as a team.
Incredibly, the entire Merrimack team kept a promise by taking Timmy to the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises ... at midnight, for the opening.
“That was the best,” Timmy said. “That was a lot of fun. They knew I really wanted to see that movie. Some of the guys were tired and almost fell asleep. Not me. I was wide awake the entire movie.”
Mary gets emotional thinking about their involvement with her son.
“Last year when the season ended, we didn’t think we’d see the players as much,” she said. “We ended up seeing them more. This is not normal, what they’ve done for Timmy. Even a few parents of the players have offered to take Timmy to games if we can’t. This is special.”
Merrimack captain Jordan Heywood is one of those who been in constant contact with Timmy since he was drafted last January.
“Honestly, Timmy is fun to be around. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing him a favor. It feels like he is another guy on the team,” Heywood said. “This is something that gives you perspective in life. We are very fortunate to play a game we love at a high level. But this is not just about giving. We are ‘getting’ something out of this. We have a made a great friend.”
Timmy has five more months of chemotherapy to deal with. More importantly, he appears to have made a lifetime of friendships at Merrimack College.