Baldwin ice hockey team a champion role model
Oliver Burtch just started playing hockey last October, but according to Baldwin varsity coach Jim Brown, he already plays with intensity well beyond his years.
The 8-year-old from Highland Park has become the Highlanders' No. 1 fan, attending virtually every game — home or away.
His mother, Nicole Burtch, teaches Spanish at Baldwin High School and has taught several of the hockey players.
Mother and son became fixtures in the stands this season. But the relationship between Oliver and the team grew into a bond no one predicted.
According to Burtch, not only did the players prove they are champion players by winning the PIHL Open Cup championship last month, they proved to be champion role models to Oliver as well.
“I love Baldwin so much and I wanted to support the team,” said Burtch said about her decision to take Oliver to the Highlanders' first game.
Oliver had just started playing hockey at that time and was curious to see his mom's students play the game.
“After the first game, he was hooked,” Burtch said.
Soon, the team began to notice Oliver and Burtch at every game.
Oliver began sending notes to the players through his mother. He made a “good luck” bracelet for sophomore defensemen Kenny Dee to wear.
“And he wore it,” Burtch said. “Sixteen-year-olds can be pretty self-centered, but Kenny wasn't. Oliver asked me a while ago for a big brother. Now, he thinks of the whole team as his big brothers.”
The Baldwin hockey players returned Oliver's attention, presenting him with a poster before a big game versus Hempfield. It was signed by all the players.
They let him wear their jerseys, and invited him to practice with them, being careful around him but making him feel like part of the team.
Coach Brown even presented Oliver with his own medal when the team defeated Harbor Creek to win the PIHL championship.
And, Oliver was asked to be honorary coach at the team's recent alumni game.
“I was shocked by how they weren't doing these things for a girl's attention or a better grade. They were just doing these things out of the goodness of their hearts,” Burtch said.
Brown, the Highlanders' first-year head coach, wasn't surprised by the character his team has shown toward Oliver. He described the Baldwin athletes as a tight-knit group that was well-parented.
“They're very loyal to each other,” Brown said. “They adopted (Oliver) like their little brother.”
“The Baldwin varsity ice hockey team is not only all-star players, they are also all-star role models,” Burtch wrote in a letter detailing the relationship the team built with her son throughout the season.
Burtch isn't always sitting in the stands. She began taking hockey lessons when Oliver started playing the game.
She scrimmages regularly and shoots around with Oliver whenever possible.
She is pursuing certification as a hockey coach for Pittsburgh ICE (Inclusion Creates Equality), a foundation created by the Pittsburgh Penguins that promotes hockey development in underserved areas.
Oliver was introduced to hockey through Pittsburgh ICE.
“I love playing hockey because it is honestly the only thing I do where I forget about everything else — all the craziness, all the work still to do, all of it just disappears,” Burtch said. “Watching the Baldwin varsity ice hockey team is very inspiring. I credit them with a good deal of inspiration for Oliver and for me. (They) have changed Oliver's life and my life in ways that will be felt long from now.
“I have never met a group of individuals like this in my teaching career or in my life, and I want them to know that we will be their No. 1 fans forever.”
Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.