Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson knew last season that Cal Burke would be a captain for the Fighting Irish as a senior, but Burke’s leadership skills didn’t only come about in South Bend, Indiana.
A native of Boxborough, Massachusetts, Burke spent two full seasons with the United States Hockey League’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders before coming to Notre Dame. He had played three years of high school hockey in Massachusetts but graduated from Cedar Rapids Washington High School. With time still left to run in his junior career, he made plans to use his extra time away from the rink productively.
Such forethought would make going to Notre Dame a good fit, and now the Fighting Irish forward is one of five finalists for this year’s Hockey Humanitarian Award.
“I finished high school in my second year in Cedar Rapids, so I didn’t really have anything to do outside of hockey,” Burke said. “I remember talking with one of our hockey development ladies there, and we thought it’d be a good idea, instead of just having kids like me sit around at home all day. It was nothing big, but we would go to the local schools and read with kids.
“We set up that as a thing for the players to do, and I would do that a couple times a week. I think that’s when I first realized the impact that I had with my status as a hockey player. I had never really realized until that point that people could look up to us, and from there it built. And then coming to Notre Dame gave a huge boost because of the emphasis on community involvement and giving back, and that inspired me to do more here.”
Burke spent much of his freshman year at Notre Dame finding his feet, like all first-year college students try to. However, that didn’t stop him from seeing what the school and his team had to offer in terms of public service, and he found particular inspiration in a now-former teammate who graduated in 2018.
“We had a lot of great community service being done by a lot of the older players on our team, and I remember really enjoying doing all those things,” Burke said.
“This one kid, Bo Brauer, he was two years older than me and he would set up a lot of that stuff. It was always a really fun time and I thought it was really meaningful, so by my sophomore year, I knew that I wanted to be one of the people that contributed in helping to organize those sorts of things.”
That he did, and in a big way. Burke excelled in the classroom, earning conference all-academic nods three years running, but he also shined in community endeavors. Since his sophomore season, he has been involved with the Fighting Irish Fight for Life program, an initiative that brings young cancer patients into the fold with Notre Dame’s sports teams.
“They sign up for a team and then we treat them as if they’re any other teammate of yours,” Burke said. “Our teammate this season is Rudy, and he had cancer and he’d always been a huge ND hockey fan and always comes to the games, and he’s 7 years old right now.
“We’ve taken him under our wing and taken him to the games, and he’s in the locker room pretty much every game with us. We went to his house to skate on his outdoor rink a couple times, and there’s a couple of events for all the teams to take their teammates to and have all the kids bond. Even (on March 4), we went to his school and they were having a Rally for Rudy day at this school and we went over to talk to the kids and be a part of it.”
The Fighting Irish Fight For Life program isn’t all that keeps Burke busy away from hockey and the classroom. He is a member of Notre Dame’s Rosenthal Leadership Academy, he earned the school’s Compton Family Leadership in Service Award last year and he represented Notre Dame as a 2019 Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honoree. He also belongs to Notre Dame’s Student Athlete Advisory Council and works on a mental health subgroup within the council.
“We formed a foundation called Irish Strong, and it’s basically where we raise awareness for the whole wide spectrum of mental health,” Burke said. “We try to raise awareness and make people comfortable talking about it and dealing with their issues.
“We want to build a sense of community that no one’s alone going through these things, so we’ve started a lot of social media campaigns and we’ve been having students from Notre Dame, all throughout different sports, speak out and share their stories about what they go through in hopes that other athletes will see that and feel comfortable knowing that other people like them are going through it, and that they don’t need to feel that they’re alone in it and that there’s help to be had.”
Selflessness like that carries onto the ice, and it’s little wonder that Burke finished Notre Dame’s 2019-20 season with twice as many assists (14) as he had goals (seven).
He also had 12 goals and 18 assists last season, and Jackson saw captaincy material in Burke’s play and demeanor.
“A mature young man and he’s got his priorities straight,” Jackson said. “All these kids come from good families, and Cal has just got his priorities in the right place. He knows what’s important in life, he takes care of his business off the ice in schools with service, and the fact that he’s a finalist for the (Hockey) Humanitarian Award says an awful lot about who he is.
“When you’re spending more time with guys who are captains, guys who you work with on a daily basis above and beyond just on the ice, you learn a lot about them. And Cal’s another guy, just like any of them really, that I’d be proud to call my son just because they’re that quality of people, and he’s lived up to that role as being one of our great captains.”
With his time as a Fighting Irish player winding down, Burke has started to look to the future. He is close to earning a degree in business analytics, and it may well turn out that his backgrounds and hockey and public service tie into what where he goes after his time in college.
“A lot of my degree is about statistics work, and my ultimate goal after hockey is to get into doing analytics work within the sport of hockey, hopefully on the team side analyzing players and being a part of the up-and-coming sports analytics group,” Burke said.
“Service would always be something that I would keep in mind, especially if I worked within hockey, and finding ways to bridge those two things together would be really cool.”
His coach at Notre Dame would be happy, if unsurprised, to hear that.
“I think he’s done a real admirable job in a leadership role, but he also is a leader on the other side of campus, too, which tells you this young guy is going places,” Jackson said. “In hockey and life after hockey, he’s going to have an impact in society just because of the type of person he is.”