Gen Next

Taking Inspiration From An Inspirational Guy

There’s a lot of people that go into putting a hockey team together – and even more who keep intact.  Sure, we mostly see the players and the coaches: they are the core of the team, after all.  But there are many others, all working hard, who can legitimately say that they’re part of the team.

There’s the refs – who we generally don’t see unless they screw up a call – and the front-office boss-types who cut the checks and players alike.

There’s trainers and doctors who keep the athletes whole, and the ice team who keeps the holes off the sheet.  There’s the business crews – the folks that sell the tickets, sign the TV deals and keep the lamps lit.  There are men and women who keep us fans entertained in the seats, and others who clean it all up we’re all gone.  There’s the dude that sings the anthem and the other one who pots up his mic and the third guy who spotlights the flag…and someone else who makes it all run on time.

They are all part of the hockey family…which makes watching guys like Cole Burkhalter grow from mite to manager a lot like watching a nephew age, mature, and eventually play their part in keeping the family together.

Born in the “hockey hotbed” of Knoxville, Tennessee, Cole nonetheless found hockey early in life – through the then-Knoxville based ECHL team ‘The Knoxville Cherokees.’  “I went to games, started playing around four or five, and just really fell in love with the game,” he says.

That love grew through junior high school – “I’d go help the teams, just do anything I could” – until one day he got an offer to playing AAA hockey in Nashville.  “I was a defenseman, a big forward defenseman,” he recalls.

But his opponent was bigger – osteosarcoma.  “I was diagnosed with knee cancer right at that time,” he says.  “I had my knee replaced, and went through 18 rounds of chemo, in one hospital and out another.”

It was an ordeal but Burkhalter defeated cancer.  And as his dreams of playing pro hockey faded, a new dream took root: that of working in hockey management.  He graduated the University of Tennessee, went to Canisius College to major in sports management, until one day he heard about the Brendan Burke Internship.

Founded in 2010 in memory of Brendan Burke, the year-long internship brings one recent college graduate with an unparalleled record of experience, education, and love of the game to USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“What we’re looking for in the internship are guys that are looking to excel and find their way in the game,” says USA Hockey’s assistant executive director Jim Johannson.  “One of the goals and challenges is to give them enough experience and expose them at enough levels of the game to see where their interests really lie.”

As we’ve discussed before, Brendan Burke was a remarkable man from a remarkable family.  So it’s no wonder to Johannson that Brendan is still inspiring people to be their best:

“I think Brendan and the Burke family have been so good to so many people in the hockey business.  If you know hockey, you know who the Burke’s are.  Brendan was a courageous young man, just doing what he could for what he loved and wanting to continue to excel in the game.  Winning this particular internship…it clearly inspires these guys.”

Now at the end of his year-long internship experience, Burkhalter says he’s definitely in this game to win it – becoming part of a pro-team’s management, that is.  It’s an aspiration he shared with Brendan, and just one of the many ways he says he feels a kinship with Burke.

“I notice a lot of similarities between us, even though unfortunately I never got the chance to meet him,” says Burkhalter:

“When I went through my experience with knee cancer – in and out of hospitals – I fell in love with hockey even more.  I got letters from across the country from hockey fans and players that I had never met.  They were just very supportive – it’s a very small hockey world, I realized that even more.  You know, we may be foes on the ice but after the games over, I think it’s one big family.

“It was a very unfortunate situation with what happened with Brendan, with him being such a good kid.  He had a passion for education, he grew up in the game of hockey, just like me.  I feel we kind of mirror each other to some extent.  So, to carry on his legacy I want to do the best I can in the most mature way possible for his name.”

As a side benefit, Burkhalter has become close to the Burke’s – spending time with Brian in Slovakia at the world championships, and corresponding frequently with brother Patrick, asking for advice or just keeping him posted about his internship activities.  Nobody can be surprised that the Burke clan has in some ways adopted Cole Burkhalter in return.

But Cole’s run is nearing its end, and starting later this August, another kid who fell in love with hockey will get his shot at the Burke Internship: Stephen Greenberg.  A recent Boston College grad, Greenberg had three seasons as team manager for the Eagle’s men’s team, even overseeing several other student managers while there.  Johannson and Burkhalter and both equally impressed.

We have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from Burkhalter, Greenberg, and future interns as well, as they mature, develop, and take on their new roles in hockey’s family.

Anyone wishing to help support the Brendan Burke Fellowship and its work can click here for an online donation. 

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