“He was born three and a half weeks early, and he hasn’t slowed down yet,” said Burt of her now 23-year-old son Cameron.
The confidence and the determination Burt possesses are beneficial, if not necessary. At the early urging of his parents, the Detroit native thought outside the limits usually reserved for inner-city children, and decided to pursue hockey. Years later, he is the leading scorer at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology as it competes in the NCAA’s Frozen Four at Ford Field.
“It’s been a good experience for me, growing up being a typical hockey player in a not so typical area where hockey is prevalent,” Cameron Burt said. “I battled a little bit, but I think it’s made me stronger as a person, and I’m just fortunate enough to play the game that I love at the collegiate level.”
Burt’s parents introduced him and his older brother Brandon to hockey through rollerblading on Belle Isle in the Detroit River . From there, the brothers joined the Detroit Hockey Association, skating out of Jack Adams Memorial Arena in a rough neighborhood on the city’s northwest side.
|Detroiter and RIT forward Cameron Burt |
It was Brandon who convinced his parents that his younger brother – by four years – had skills that dwarfed most of the kids playing in the DHA.
“His brother is his biggest fan,” Montina said. “He was the one who convinced me to move him to a different program. He had went as far as he could at the DHA program, it was a great program, but he needed a step-up in terms of coaching and exposure. I was a little leery, but his brother said, ‘mom, you got to let him do it, you’ve got to let him try.’ ”
Burt signed her son up to a league in the suburbs, and it was there with the Grosse Pointe Bulldogs that Cameron played as a squirt. After a stint with another team, he moved back to the Bulldogs, and played there until his freshman year in high school at the University of Detroit-Jesuit, the only private, all-boys school in the city. He played one prep season for the Cubs, before he transferred schools.
Burt eventually graduated from Communications & Media Arts High, a Detroit public school. After graduating from high school, Burt left Detroit ’s mean streets.
“I hooked up his car to my Trail Blazer, and we drove east,” Montina Burt said. “That was a scary situation, because we hadn’t found an apartment yet, didn’t know anybody there. This was taking your 18-year-old 12 hours away and dropping him and leaving him. I was scared to death, but it worked out very well.“
During his time on the east coast, Burt played for the New England Huskies of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. While his mom talked about the learning experiences he had living away from home, Burt pointed out how much fun he had living in Boston .
“It was a great experience,” Burt said. “I had a lot of fun in Boston , lived right in downtown Boston . I lived with some of my friends on the team. Eighteen years old around 250,000 college students. … I had a great time.”
From there, Burt headed to Wisconsin , where he played with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. He was about to finally return home, and play at Wayne State University , but when its program was rumored to be dissolving, Burt found a new home at RIT.
Now, he’s the team’s leading scorer, and making a name for himself during the Tigers’ improbably run toward the NCAA national championship. The Tigers took down Denver , the top seed in the tournament, and Burt had the game-winning goal. The next night, RIT beat New Hampshire 6-2, securing a trip to the Frozen Four in the school’s first postseason appearance.
But the road to the Frozen Four has not come easy for Burt. His mother said there were times where her son would be baffled as to why he didn’t make certain teams growing up.
“He’s gone to try-outs and you know, there have been times when he didn’t make a team,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Well, how did you do today?’, and he’d list how he did, and tell me the points and things that he got, and then he wouldn’t make the team. And we would be shocked. People would just be shocked.
“I remember one time when an assistant coach just could not understand why the coach didn’t take him. Sometimes that is hard. It’s hurtful, especially when you were really objective and compared yourself to somebody and they made it and you didn’t and you really knew you should have. I just said, ‘That wasn’t where you were meant to be. Let it go.’ Can I say it was always about race? No, maybe not. But sometimes I think it was.”
Both Burt and his mom said that race was sometimes an issue on the ice, as well, but it was something they had to fight through together.
“I was the brunt of a lot of jokes,” Burt said. “But I kind of let that fuel my fire. I played all the other sports with my friends just for fun, but I was really in love with hockey and felt that I had a better chance to do something with hockey than I had with say basketball or football or baseball.”
A mother’s instincts could always determine when something wasn’t quite right on the ice, too.
“Knowing his body language, I could always tell when somebody said something, just from the way they reacted,” Montina Burt said. “His response would be then to skate harder and try to put the puck in the net. I Always worked at telling them to keep their head in the game, don’t get in fights and end up in the penalty box. You can’t help anybody in the box. But I also knew that times you had to do that, you had to send a message and let people know.
“It was hard because I put my son in that position, allowed him to lead himself into a position where he was the only African-American there. You couldn’t always jump up and yell, ‘It’s racism!’ You can’t do that all the time. You put him in that position, now figure out how to deal with it. All-in-all, it worked out.”
Skating through the challenges has led Burt back to Detroit , playing in front of a possible record-breaking crowd at Ford Field.
“I think it’s great just being able to get home and play in front of my family and friends,” Burt said. “I haven’t been able to do that for about five or six years. I’m just honored to be able to play in the Frozen Four and be a part of a team that has been fortunate enough to make it here.”
Yet Montina Burt believes bigger things are on the horizon for her youngest.
“I don’t look at it as an end of a journey,” she said. “This is just a stop on the road. Cameron has much bigger things ahead of him. This is just one of them. This is a milestone.”