Being on your own for the first time is the stressful task most people take on in their first weeks of college, but for freshman Courtney Burke, that was an adjustment she had to make at the age of 13.
The UW women’s hockey player moved 1,039 miles away from her family in Albany, N.Y. just after entering her teenage years. She jumped at the opportunity to play the sport she loves at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, an elite hockey school in Fairmont, Minn.
“It was hard on my mom and my dad the most because they had to send their 13-year-old away,” Burke said. “It took awhile for me to adjust, about two weeks of being homesick, and after that it was just done. It wasn’t hard adjusting to [college life] at all because I am so used to it.”
Now finding her place among the new faces of her Badger teammates, Burke has focused her attention on hockey, having already learned to deal with the other normal adjustments.
Her early life away from home is proving to be beneficial. The transition from high school to collegiate play is generally a season-long process for freshmen athletes, who are not used to the size, quickness and physical nature of college play. Yet, Burke has already drawn attention to herself, impressing her new Badger family by competing right alongside the tougher competition.
“She has a bright future, she adapts herself well to college life and hockey and I think she will just continue to grow,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “If people were watching Friday or Sunday night, they noticed her like, ‘Who’s that number 6, she’s pretty good.'”
Burke’s presence on the ice against Bemidji State resembled more of an experienced athlete than a player just seven games into her college career.
Debuting as a Badger in Madison last Friday, Burke and her eight freshmen teammates did so in front of a sold out crowd at LaBahn Arena. No one knew what the new rink’s atmosphere would be like, but for the newcomer, it was a surprise.
“Honestly when they said it was sold out Friday I didn’t think there would be such a buzz in the place,” Burke said.
This past Sunday Burke experienced another first: scoring a goal in a Wisconsin jersey. She admitted she didn’t know her shot from just across the offensive blue line had whisked by the Beavers’ goaltender until her teammates began celebrating and the blare of the new air horn sounded for the second time ever.
With the goal, along with four assists this season, the defensive player is having a major impact on the scoreboard. She leads the Badgers’ defenders in points, tying for fourth on the team with five.
“Traditionally we’ve had people back there that can produce and that is another reason we were excited when she chose to come here, she has that capability,” Johnson said. “She is really just touching the surface here.”
Partnered with senior defenseman Jordan Brickner, the duo quickly bonded both on and off the rink, which was evident in their time on the ice. Both Badgers said they share some unspoken understanding, allowing each other to know just what the other will do.
“I think Courtney and I think similarly on the ice in a defensive way. She is very poised out there,” Brickner said. “I think we back each other up. We know what the play should be before it happens, so we have been working pretty well together so far.”
Beyond her play for UW, Burke has been successful at the international level. As a member of the USA under-18 team she has earned two silver medals in 2010 and 2012 at the U18 World Championships, and in 2011 she helped USA bring home the gold medal.
“It’s been an adventure with USA hockey, playing such an up-tempo game and I like it a lot,” Burke said. “Stockholm was the best place, winning the gold in Sweden.”
Burke’s success with Team USA and in high school made her an attractive recruit for Wisconsin. After visiting Madison several times, Burke said the appeal of being a Badger grew with each successive trip and decided that UW was where she saw herself, like many Badgers say, and it just felt like the right place.
Another advantage to Wisconsin’s program was having several Shattuck alumna on the roster, including sophomore Blayre Turnbull, freshman Kim Drake, and senior Brianna Decker.
Decker serves as Burke’s mentor both on and off the ice and the two are roommates on the road. This gives Burke a chance to learn and observe from one of the best players in the nation.
“When you have Brianna around, I said ‘if you really want to become a great player just watch her’, and not just the things she does on the ice, but off the ice,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to hear Courtney respects her and uses her.”
Decker learned from past Wisconsin greats Meaghan Duggan and Hilary Knight, and now takes on the star player role. With Burke’s impressive performance early on, it’s a serious possibility she could be at their level in the coming years.
“Hopefully she will grab that torch and run with it,” Johnson said. “I’m excited because she is just touching the surface right now, the rest of her season and the rest of her career is going to be a lot of fun to watch her develop.”