Photo courtesy of Mike Miller/Fighting Irish Media
Notoriety is something Anders Bjork doesn’t seek.
Bjork, a junior winger at Notre Dame, has blossomed this season into one of the most dynamic players in the country. He’s scored 17 goals and is top 10 nationally with 40 points.
Yet Bjork deflects the spotlight, often crediting teammates or talking about good bounces.
Same goes for life outside the rink.
Bjork is one of five finalists for the 2017 Hockey Humanitarian Award, which is presented annually with regards to leadership and community service. He’s spent the better part of the last two seasons making weekly trips to Perley Fine Arts Academy, an elementary school just south of the South Bend, Ind., campus.
Making the list of finalists shines a light on the work Bjork has done. But he’s never sought adulation, instead making those pilgrimages without much fanfare.
“I don’t know,” Bjork said. “I guess I never really thought it was a big deal. As I became close with the kids at Perley, it just became a part of my life. They’re just my friends, I felt like, especially the staff and stuff. The kids, too. I felt like they were almost like my little siblings or something. They’re a part of my life.
“The teacher was always sending me stuff of the kids, so our relationship picked up fast. They became a part of my life, so I didn’t feel like it was a big deal because I was just with my friends.”
Just how Bjork has gone from standard volunteer to revered figure at Perley is a story of growth.
Engaging in community service is pretty standard practice at Notre Dame, especially amongst athletes. Head coach Jeff Jackson encourages everyone on the hockey team to give back in some way. Bjork tested the waters of service tentatively at first.
Athletes from other sports talked to Bjork about potential opportunities. Johnathan Franklin, former Student Welfare and Development Coordinator on campus, made a presentation to the hockey team. Franklin then suggested to Bjork they pair up for a trip to Perley. About a month before last season started, Franklin made the introductions. Bjork thought it a good opportunity to get in some hours before his schedule got more hectic.
“I didn’t go into here thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do something with service,’” Bjork said. “I was like any college student-athlete, focused on my sport, trying to get by with school and have fun and stuff like that. I was really fortunate that I went to a place where I was so encouraged to do service because I probably would’ve never found this opportunity and this friendship if our coach hadn’t said, ‘Hey guys, I want you doing a certain number of hours or to have a team goal.’”
Bjork quickly found himself exceeding any team goals or requirements. By his third trip or so to Perley, Bjork felt comfortable around his group of third graders. Their relationship flourished.
Even if it’s only for a little while, Bjork makes sure to stop by weekly. Sometimes he’ll help with homework or get involved with class projects. Other times he’ll show up for recess and lunch, sitting with kids and listening to their stories. Bjork has his own desk.
Showing up so often has helped Bjork understand classroom dynamics much better. Perley teacher Courtney Baranay left nothing to his imagination.
“These children have experienced levels of disappointment and heartbreak that many of us will never have to live through,” Baranay wrote as part of the Humanitarian Award finalist press release. “I can tell you stories of these children being removed from their homes, watching their parents getting shot right in front of them, and on and on. But Anders has been one of the most constant, loving figures in their young lives. He gives them what some of their own parents cannot — his time and love.”
Bjork has expanded his reach over time.
Other Notre Dame players — notably classmates Cal Petersen, Jake Evans and Luke Ripley, among others — have joined in for trips to Perley. Bjork, instead of cancelling a visit because his mom was making a brief stop in South Bend, brought her along.
“I think he’s just a kind guy,” said Evans, one of Bjork’s roommates. “He sees that these kids love him. How could you leave these little kids and not go back and see them? I’ve been there a few times and I think it’s fun. When we have spare time, we might as well use it. When we have breaks and there’s no students here and no classes, we might as well put it to good use instead of sitting on the couch and stuff.
“Anders enjoys it and I think that’s just the biggest thing. He’s a kind guy. If these kids want to see him, he’ll go over there.”
Some things have changed for Bjork in the year or more since he started making Perley a regular stop. He’s an assistant captain for Notre Dame this season and its leading scorer. He’s asked to play on both special teams units.
Bjork is arguably the most important offensive force on a team that’s playing near the top of Hockey East and battling for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Yet the trips to Perley haven’t stopped. Nor will they.
“Some of the things he does he reaches out and does them on his own,” Jackson said. “He’s an impressive young man. I give his mom and dad a lot of credit because obviously for him to take on those kind of things himself is something that’s impressive. Willing to give back to the community and especially dealing with young kids, trying to show them the way. I think what he’s done is incredible. Especially the fact that a kid of his ability level, you don’t always get that with kids that are really good players or great players. You don’t always get that level of humility.”
Most times, a week doesn’t feel complete for Bjork without spending time at Perley. Squeezing in visits before practice isn’t out of the ordinary once the season begins.
Score multiple games and win a weekend series? Bjork will be at Perley within days. Working through a slump? Bjork will be back at Perley anyway. Tired after a road trip with practice looming on the horizon? Doesn’t matter.
Bjork has found offering consistency to children in need of it has its own rewards. And that has nothing to do with an award or whether anyone outside Perley even notices.
As ever, that suits Bjork just fine.
“There are so many things,” he said. “I think they’ve really helped me gain perspective. Countless times if I’m having a bad day or bad week or I’m in a slump or something, I’ll go there and it’s amazing how much better I’ll feel after. Especially because I go there before practice or something. I’ll be like, ‘Should I even go today? I’m tired.’ I’ll go there and it makes me take a step back and gain perspective, realize how small my problems are.
“It really has inspired me to be a better person and work on that.”