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Bjork, Indiana Elementary School Form Unlikely Bond

Bruins prospect has turned heads with his work away from the rink

by Eric Russo @NHLBruins / BostonBruins.com

BostonBruins.com - It did not take long for Courtney Baranay to realize she had something special building inside the walls of her third-grade classroom.

Perley Fine Arts Academy is a stone's throw from the storied University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, and often attracts students hoping to fulfill their community service obligations. Such was the case during the 2015 Fall Semester, when a student athlete Baranay had never seen before arrived at her door with an advisor from the university.

It was evident to Baranay during one of the young scholar's first visits that he was different, a cut above any of the volunteers that had graced her classroom in the past. Baranay - a teacher for some 20 years, the last 10 of which have been at Perley - sent the young man into the hallway with four students to work on a math activity.

Normally, Baranay explained, such undertakings evolve into a "hot mess," that require her to burst into the hall and reel in the students. She had no such problems this time. In fact, the session was going so smoothly that Baranay forgot the group was still absent from the classroom.

"The kids listened to him," said Baranay. "I walked out there and they were glued to his side and I thought, 'Oh, well here we go. I have somebody that can maybe help these kids to understand.'"

So, you're wondering, who was the young man that seemed to captivate the children in Room 208?

His name is Anders Bjork.

A 2014 fifth-round pick of the Bruins, Bjork is a rising star in the organization, having been among college hockey's leading scorers throughout his junior season for the Fighting Irish. But it's his work away from the rink that is truly turning heads.

"I have been in the education world probably 20 years and never have I seen someone make that much of a difference," Baranay said of Bjork. "Of all the draft picks [the Bruins] could have picked, you hit the mark on that one."

Bjork was originally scheduled for 15 hours of community service to satisfy his requirements. But the 20-year-old forward did not stop there. He soared past the minimum obligation and returned again…and again…and again.

The Mequon, Wisconsin, native formed an unlikely - but extraordinary - bond with the third-graders from South Bend. Bjork is now in his second school year visiting the kids at Perley and his visits are beginning to gain widespread attention thanks to a letter Baranay penned about her star helper that was published on Notre Dame's website.

His work became so influential that Baranay could not let the story go untold any longer.

"He respects them. He doesn't talk at them, he talks to them," said Baranay. "I am sure he has been in trouble for being late to practice because he will not leave until he has spoken to every one of these children in this room.

"And if somebody is missing he wants to know where they are. I don't even have the patience that he has with these children.

"The more experiences we can give these children, the better chance they have of surviving in the world. Anders fits right in. He gives them that glimpse of what is possible outside of these walls.

"He is their Mr. B."

So Close, Yet So Far Away

Baranay can see Notre Dame's Golden Dome from the window of her classroom. Despite the proximity of the campus centerpiece, though, the idea that someday her students will roam the halls of the hallowed campus has always been somewhat of a distant dream.

Perley Fine Arts Academy, in the heart of South Bend, is a public school that serves 220 children from kindergarten through the fourth grade. The school serves 100 percent free and reduced lunch, a requirement because 70 percent of its students are at or below the poverty level.

Many of the students, according to Baranay, come from single-parent families and live with their mothers or grandparents. The school has a large turnover rate, meaning many children transfer in and out of the school each year.

"It's pretty rough," said Baranay. "I have 22 children. I have a young man who has a form of dwarfism, and we think cognitively he is on a four-year-old level.

"That child would not leave the room until Anders walked over. Anders walked over, took his hand and asked if he could walk with him down to the lunch room and that was all it took."

Bjork has an uncanny ability to make each child feel comfortable and provide him or her with what they really need: someone they can rely on.

"We have tons of volunteers who have come over the years and, mistakenly, they think these kids need books, these kids need candy, they need coats, they need gloves," Baranay explained.

"Their parents do provide for them to the extent that they can. But he comes when he says he comes; he is here when he says he will be here.

"He has never once let these children down and it is as simple as showing up when he says he is going to show up. It is that profound."

Notre Dame head hockey coach Jeff Jackson, who himself has a relationship with the Perley school, believes Bjork is providing the children with a sense of inspiration and drive to be the best that they can be.

"The fact that he has developed a relationship with kids who aren't as fortunate as he is," Jackson said, "but also trying to give them some motivation to see what they can accomplish if they do well in school and do things the right way like he did, I'm sure he's a great role model for those kids."

Related: Bjork Thriving at Notre Dame

Jackson encourages his players to participate in the university's service program by giving 20 hours each year. Bjork has gone above and beyond, leading the Fighting Irish with some 50 hours of service last season alone.

"When you consider the amount of time they have for academics and hockey, that adds up," said Jackson. "It's pretty impressive that he took that time to find different things on his own to give back to the community."

'He Gets Them To Work and They Don't Even Know They're Working'

For Bjork, it all began with a presentation that was given by the Student Welfare and Development office at the beginning of his sophomore year. One of the staff members that helped preside over the meeting was former UCLA football standout and Green Bay Packers draft-pick Jonathan Franklin, who spoke with Bjork after the presentation and pointed him toward Perley.

"I didn't have class, I went over there with him and met Courtney. That's how it all started," said Bjork. "I just went back when I could. Eventually, it became a weekly thing."

Bjork generally arrives once or twice a week on his long board - or sometimes in teammate Cal Petersen's truck - at around 11:30 a.m., just about the time the class is about to head out for recess. He will stay for an hour or so and help in whatever way he is needed before heading off for practice in the afternoon. When he is on the road, he will FaceTime with the group or send them a text message.

"If he has an extra 10 he will come. He has texted me before and said, 'Listen, I have 20 minutes before I have to be at practice, but I cannot go a week without seeing my kids,'" said Baranay. "He will show up in this classroom and he will find those kids and he will make sure that they are having a good day."

Bjork has his own desk, which he often finds adorned with the day's work. Sometimes, Bjork will ask for help and end up with a stream of students lining up to provide their assistance.

"He will sit there at the desk and say, 'I don't know how to do this,'" said Baranay. "Pretty soon he's got five kids over his shoulder explaining to him how to do it.

"He gets them to work and they don't even know they're working."

There were times at the beginning, however, when Bjork thought he was being a distraction. When he arrived, the class would erupt into cheers and want to hear the latest tales from Mr. B's college life or hockey travels.

But Baranay quickly dispelled those thoughts.

"All that credit goes to Courtney," said Bjork, who is one of five finalists for the 2017 Hockey Humanitarian Award, which will be presented to college hockey's "finest citizen" during the Frozen Four in Chicago this April.

"Most of the time we would just talk, play games and stuff like that. I felt like I was being a disruption."But she said, 'No, these kids need a person that's consistent. They're not used to having someone around that's in college and takes school seriously. They need a person like you - someone to strive for and impress.'

"She just made it so easy for the kids to be themselves around me."

The experience has been so rewarding that Bjork has made sure to share it with some of the people closest to him. Bjork has come to class with his mother, his sister, and several teammates, including Petersen, Jake Evans, Jordan Gross, and Luke Ripley.

"It definitely has become a part of me," said Bjork. "I feel like I have to go there every week or else my week is not complete. I've become really close to the kids.

"They're just so grateful for any little thing that I do, or some of my teammates, anything we bring or anything we help them with. It's a really powerful place."

Bjork credited his parents, Kirt and Patricia, both Notre Dame alums, with imparting on to him a sense of selflessness. He often calls his mother to let her know about his latest classroom adventures.

"I grew up hearing how fortunate I was…sometimes they would use the word spoiled," said Bjork. "Everything I had, I was so fortunate to have, lucky and blessed. A lot of people in the world, not far away from where I live, or where I go to school in this case, have the same opportunity or the same things and lifestyle that I did.

"That was instilled in me by my parents…always be thankful, but also try to give back and do what you can to help the people who don't have the same opportunity as you do."

Giving Them the Shirt Off His Back

Bjork grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while playing for the National Developmental Program from 2012-14. He suited up for Team USA during the 2016 World Junior Championship and helped the team to a bronze medal, netting two goals and capturing player of the game honors in an 8-3 win over Sweden.

The 6-foot, 181-pound forward was drafted in the fifth round (146th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Bruins and has three times attended the organization's annual summer Development Camp. Bjork has also been a key contributor during his three-plus seasons with the Fighting Irish, leading the team in scoring (35 points) as a sophomore and being named a second-team Hockey East All-Star.

His career trajectory has continued to ascend this season, as Bjork has tallied 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 29 games, which ranks him ninth in the nation in scoring.

"Anders has made great strides in his overall game and we are really excited about his progress," said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, who pointed to Bjork's speed and special teams ability as some of his biggest assets.
 
"He is a really smart player whose strong skill set and versatility give him the ability to play up and down the lineup"

But for most of the kids in Room 208, Bjork's hockey skills are secondary. He has simply been Mr. B, although the sport is becoming an increasingly more important part of the conversation.

Baranay has incorporated hockey into her lesson plans. When the class was studying graphing, they created a survey of each student's favorite sport. Hockey won in landslide. The kids have begun keeping track of Bjork's stats and learn geography by marking on a map each place he has traveled to for a game.

"Last year it was not as big deal for those kids," said Baranay. "I think they most loved Mr. B. But this year they have absolutely embraced the sport of hockey. They probably know more about the game and the way it's supposed to be played than I do."

Bjork has brought in his equipment for the kids to try on - "that was a hilarious day…the kids wouldn't wear the jersey because it smelled so bad," Bjork said with a chuckle. And after winning the bronze at last year's World Juniors, he returned to the classroom - the same day the plane touched down from Finland - with the medal and his USA jersey.

Each child got a chance to don the hardware. And when Bjork had to rush out for another commitment, he left the mementos for the kids to enjoy. They still hang on the bulletin board.

"I said, 'I've got to give you your jersey back, I've got to give you your medal back,'" said Baranay. "He said he wants the kids to see and aim for what is possible. He keeps telling these kids there is nothing that you cannot do and they believe him."

"They didn't need to be hanging in the dorm room, collecting dust," Bjork said when asked why he would part with such prized possessions. "I think it's cool how grateful they are when I bring something in. I brought a broken stick in and they just absolutely loved it.

"Those little things, to me, show them that I care about them. That's what I'm trying to do."

The class recently attended Notre Dame's clash with the University of New Hampshire at Compton Family Ice Arena, the home rink of the Fighting Irish, to watch Mr. B play. Bjork hosted his kids for a game last season, too, and made sure to scrounge up every extra ticket he could from his teammates so that every child could attend the game.

Related: Bjork Advancing Offensive Game

Baranay and another teacher bought T-shirts and spray-painted Bjork's name and No. 10 on the back. For many of the kids, it was the first time they had visited Notre Dame's campus.

"In reality, it's probably the biggest reason I made him a captain this year," said Jackson. "I know the amount of time he's put into service. He's not the most verbose guy as far as a leader goes, but he certainly leads by example in that area."

Being a strong pillar in the community is also a vital part of what it means to be a Boston Bruin. From the moment they are drafted into the organization, prospects are encouraged to give back and follow the lead of legendary Bruins Milt Schmidt, Johnny Bucyk, Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron.

"Anders is a high-character person," said Sweeney, who compared Bjork to former teammate Lane MacDonald. "He's very grounded - his family was certainly hugely responsible for that - humble but highly competitive and a smart player. Lane was one of the best college players ever, but he is a really genuine person and Anders has similar qualities as a player and maybe more importantly, as a person.
 
"We knew Anders' character was solid, but he has continued to impress us and the Notre Dame community. [Bruins Director of Community Relations] Kerry Collins is going to keep Anders very busy in the Boston area."

"In many ways, they've helped me more than I've helped them."

When a father of one of the children in Room 208 passed away suddenly from an aneurysm last fall, a local organization requested a Notre Dame hockey stick to help lift the young boy's spirits. Bjork, of course, went one step further, and got his hands on four signed blue and gold sticks.

The gesture prompted Baranay to write the letter that has now garnered so much attention.

"When they bring up, 'I'm not going to college,' or, 'I can't do that,' he will stop what he's doing and he will turn to them and say, 'You absolutely can. It doesn't take money and doesn't take things. It takes a desire to want to do something,'" Baranay said.

"That is what he is showing them. And also by coming, he has a desire to be here. I tell those kids all the time, 'If there is something you would like to do in your life, then have the desire.' He gives them hope, he gives them hope."

Bjork has provided Baranay with plenty of hope, too. When Bjork left campus to return home after the academic year came to a close last spring, she thought that would be the end of the young man's visits.

But Bjork made sure to FaceTime his kids each week until the end of the school year. And he was back again when his junior year kicked off this past fall.

"It makes me cry," Baranay said. "There are people that really love these kids. They grow up and a lot of them don't make it. If two of them or three of them will call me one day and say, 'You know what, I listened to Mr. B and went to college, then that's all I can hope for.'

"Otherwise, I read about them in the obituaries or I will read about them in jail and that can't be the end. If any of these kids go on because of Mr. B then we've done our job."

Bjork, in many ways, does not fully understand the influence he has had on the kids in Room 208. For him, it is the children that are providing the most important impact.

"These kids go through so much on a daily basis, they don't have a lot of stability, but still are so strong," said Bjork. "It helps me keep my priorities straight and not get frustrated over little things. When school or hockey is not going well, I kind of think back to them and how fortunate I am. I gain perspective.

"In many ways, they've helped me more than I've helped them."

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