April 4, 2017
By John Heisler
Kirt Bjork would like to think his hockey career at the University of Notre Dame could stand on its own feet.
After all, Bjork-a 5-9, 170-pound winger from Trenton, Michigan-finished his Irish career with 76 goals and 161 points from 1979-80 through 1982-83.
As a junior he helped his team claim the prestigious Great Lakes Invitational.
A year later he earned All-America honors from the American Hockey Coaches Association after leading the team in goals, assists, points, game-winning goals and power-play goals.
After graduation he played a couple of seasons with Adirondack of the American Hockey League (then a Detroit Red Wings affiliate) and in the Italian Elite League.
But Bjork knows better.
That’s because of his 20-year-old son Anders Bjork, a junior standout on the current Notre Dame squad that heads for the NCAA Frozen Four this week, along with 17-year-old son Brady.
“I became the third best hockey player in the family about eight years ago,” Kirt says.
“They remind me of that often.”
Hockey long has been part of the Bjork family DNA. Kirt has a nephew in Erik Condra who starred for the Irish from 2005-09 and now plays for the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. The Bjorks have two older daughters–Brinya and Keali, both Notre Dame graduates-and Brinya (a 2012 graduate) is married to Mark Van Guilder, captain of the Irish hockey team that lost to Boston College in the 2008 Frozen Four finale.
Yet the games still qualify as emotional rollercoasters.
“Watching it is a heck of a lot harder than playing it, especially when you’ve got a child involved in it,” he says. “And it’s nerve-wracking when you can’t be there.”
Kirt didn’t travel to Manchester, New Hampshire, two weekends ago when the Irish defeated top seed Minnesota and second seed UMass Lowell on consecutive afternoons to earn a 2017 Frozen Four spot.
“I did not make it to New Hampshire–I was at a tournament with Brady,” he says. “I only saw the third period of Saturday’s (Notre Dame) game and about half of Sunday’s game and that was on my iPhone with Brady giving me play-by-play commentary as I was driving from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, back to Mequon.
“Brady has a great head for the game so I’ll pick up his verbal, and sometimes non-verbal, reactions to things Anders does on the ice. He’ll say, `C’mon Anders.’ And I’ll say, `What happened?”‘ and he’ll give me a blow by blow. Or he’ll say, `That was sweet,’ and he’ll slow the video down on his phone and show it to me.”
Kirt’s extensive experiences with the game might suggest watching a hockey contest would be a routine occurrence. Not so, he says.
“As parents we get really nervous out there,” Kirt says. “And I’m one of these guys who thinks his kid can be 80 percent better than he is. I always expect more–not in a mean way but in a way that I think I know the talents of Anders and his brother. So I have probably higher expectations than he does.
“Sunday was a sweaty palm game, especially when Lowell scored with five minutes left. But the way they responded was really awesome.”
With both Anders and Brady typically playing multiple hockey games every weekend, Kirt figures he probably made it to half the Notre Dame home games this winter.
“The other half I was somewhere with Brady,” Kirt says. “It’s the same thing we did with Anders when he was Brady’s age. My wife said, `When I first met you at Notre Dame, if you had told me how crazy this sport is I might have run the other direction.'”
Kirt and his wife Trish make certain they all stay in touch.
“I always encourage Anders to first call his mom (after games) and he’s fairly good at that,” says Kirt. “When I talk to him it’s usually, `What did you think? Tell me your thoughts and I’ll tell you mine.’
“Both Trish and I will send him a text well in advance of a game. My message is usually about concentrating on doing these couple of things a little better than you did last game.”
Kirt admits it’s a different game now than when he took the Athletic and Convocation Center ice nearly four decades ago.
“The skill level of these kids now is incredible, and I do not say that lightly,” he says. “We had some big players back when I played. But now all these kids are so physically gifted.
“To have Notre Dame so regularly in the conversation for a league title or a national title is just heartwarming. There’s not a guy back from the very first varsity teams in the late `60s and early `70s who doesn’t skate on every shift with the team out there, hoping they do it.
“The closest we came was my junior year in 1981-82 with Dave Poulin and Jeff Logan when we got beat in what was the equivalent of the regional by Michigan State (in the CCHA championship game). But, candidly, we probably were a significant step behind the marquee teams of that era–the North Dakotas, the Wisconsins, the Minnesotas.”
Not long after Bjork’s senior season ended, Notre Dame announced it was dropping hockey as a varsity sport. The Irish competed as a club team for a year (enabling players who opted to transfer to be eligible immediately) then returned as an independent non-scholarship program in 1984-85. The University eventually added back the scholarships a few at a time and rejoined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1992-93.
Says Bjork, “I graduated in 1983 and the next year my heart ached for those guys that had to make a decision either to stay at a place that they loved or to continue their hockey dreams elsewhere–and several of them did (leave).
“It was a tough time for Notre Dame hockey and for us to have bounced back from that and played through that–my hat is off to them because they bled the same blue and gold as anyone.
“The fact we have come back the way we have from that is based on a lot of people getting things right. And one of those people is (Notre Dame vice president and athletics director) Jack Swarbrick for his decision to build a new facility (the Compton Family Ice Arena) that I think is arguably one of the best facilities in hockey, maybe in all of sports.”
In addition to his on-ice exploits (he leads the Irish with 21 goals and 52 points and was named the outstanding player in the 2017 NCAA Northeast Regional) Anders has earned lots of local notice this winter for his mentoring work at nearby Perley Fine Arts Academy just south of the Notre Dame campus.
“That is his mother’s heart,” says Kirt. “She was all about the mentality of to whom much is given, much is expected. Anders’ other three siblings have embraced that, too. She always said do it humbly and he has embraced that wisdom from his mom.
“He gets a lot more out of it than he gives. He’s had some great opportunities and this is a small way he can give back. He’s emotionally attached to all these kids and particularly Miss B (teacher Courtney Baranay), as they call her. Now there’s a real hero.
“I was moved to tears at what she wrote about it all ( http://www.und.com/sports/m-hockey/spec-rel/010417aaa.html). Anders has expressed to me that he knows there’s going to come a time when he leaves Notre Dame and he hopes somebody steps up and carries the torch. The gift is time-there’s no substitute for it.”
Dad’s hockey schedule this week should enable Kirt to be on hand for Anders’ and the Irish assignment in Chicago Thursday against Denver.
“And hopefully back on Saturday,” says Kirt, a director of regional development at the University of Notre Dame.
Kirt recalls wondering how realistic it was–knowing Notre Dame long ago had been designated the host institution at the United Center this week-to expect the current Irish team to come along for the ride.
“I thought they could be good, but with two seniors on the team and some young guys coming in-you never know,” he says. “So, after the regional, I called (Irish assistant coach) Andy Slaggert and said, `I think I know a little hockey, but the coaching strategy you guys put together was beyond impressive.'”
In mid-February the Irish probably qualified as a bubble team in the college hockey versions of bracketology. A little more than a month later they knocked off the top two seeds in a regional on consecutive days for a spot in the Frozen Four-Notre Dame’s third appearance there in 10 seasons.
In this case, Kirt would be more than happy to see his son Anders (one of 10 Hobey Baker Award finalists, a first-team Hockey East All-Star and a 2014 fifth-round NHL Boston Bruins’ draft choice) and his Notre Dame teammates this week push Dad’s achievements a little bit further back in the rear-view mirror.
Count on the Bjork clan to be rooting for that from near and far.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.