As the puck slid through the crease and into the net, the Brown men’s hockey team erupted into cheers. The goal wasn’t an overtime game-winner. It wasn’t a goal to upset a ranked opponent. It was not even a goal in a game. But this goal was special.
That goal — on the Bears’ home ice at Meehan Auditorium — was the first time Ethan Bairos lit the lamp. The men’s hockey roster includes the names, years and hometowns of 30 players. In truth, that number is 31. The name Bairos won’t show up in any scoring sheets or scouting reports, but it is the name of the newest Brown Bear to join the men’s hockey family. Ethan is a seven-year old boy from nearby Berkely, Mass., who for the last year has been undergoing treatment in his battle against Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. In October, Ethan joined the men’s hockey team, and for the past few months, the two have developed a bond neither will soon forget.
“The first time he got on that ice, when they taught him how to skate, it was awesome,” said Debbie Bairos, Ethan’s mother. “When he scored, they cheered just like they had scored a goal in their biggest game. They cheered for him, and when we watched that, the tears came to our eyes.”
Ethan and the team were brought together through Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization in Quincy, Mass. that matches children with life-threatening illnesses with collegiate sports teams in the New England area. The program has created connections with hospitals and medical practitioners, as well as a network of 100 colleges and universities, with Brown being one of 24 schools that have added a child to one of its teams. Both Dan Walsh, executive director of Team IMPACT, and Bobby Farnham ’12, assistant captain of the team, said the closeness of college athletics is what makes the program so powerful for both the child and the players.
“The vibrancy and the support of each other — through good and bad — that comes with being part of a team, whether it’s in treatment or after treatment,” Walsh said. “That’s what benefits the child.”
“I think in college sports, the camaraderie and everything about being on a college sports team works so well with this organization,” Farnham said. “It’d be different at a professional level because it’d be a different atmosphere. In college, everybody is best buddies. Everyone goes through the same things together, and it’s just a way more tightly-knit group.”
The hockey team became involved with Team IMPACT after Farnham heard of the program from a high school teammate now playing at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, N.H.
Ethan and his family have since become a mainstay at Meehan. Ethan has been out on the ice at team practices and can be seen in his own jersey, with his name and number on it, high-fiving players and wishing them luck as they head out onto the ice before every home game. Last weekend, the family hit the road with the team for its games against Dartmouth and Harvard, with Ethan riding on the bus and his family driving behind.
“He doesn’t think of himself as the kid from Team IMPACT who’s with the team,” Bairos said. “He thinks of himself as a member of the Brown University hockey team, and the guys make him feel that way, too.”
Farnham in particular has emerged as a role model and mentor for Ethan. Since taking the initiative to involve the team in the program, Farnham, who is a finalist for college hockey’s Humanitarian Award, has spent time with Ethan at the family’s home hanging out, playing video games and even helping build an ice rink in the backyard.
“I was distracted the whole time by Ethan because he just wanted to play all the time, so I didn’t get enough work done as I should have,” Farnham said.
“Bobby has gone above and beyond what we expected of this program,” Bairos said. “He takes calls from Ethan whenever, and talks to him for two seconds, or talks to him for a half hour.”
Bairos said the impact the team has had on Ethan has been incredible for his confidence, self-esteem and energy, and that the family sees the team as the “30 big brothers he’s never had.”
“We live, breathe, eat, sleep, wake up and it’s time for hockey now,” she said. “It gives him something to look forward to.”
“Hearing his parents talk about it, I think is the true telling of what it’s done for him,” Farnham said. “They say all he wants to do is come to the rink. All he wants to do is be around the guys. He loves every guy on the team so much, and he loves playing hockey. It is the best possible therapy he can have.”
Farnham also pointed out how the relationship has worked in the opposite direction, adding that Ethan’s presence has left a lasting impression on the team.
“For us, on the other end, it’s been pretty rewarding to see a kid who has a life-threatening illness to be as strong as he is and have as much energy as he has,” Farnham said.
The challenges the Bairos family face have inspired them to take action, as well. Thinking of the support the family received when Ethan was first diagnosed, Debbie Bairos founded the Kids Kickin’ Cancer Foundation in April. Bairos says the foundation hosts fundraisers and events, and with the money raised, provides $500 grants to families with children under the age of 18 undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment. In less than a year, Bairos says the organization has given grants to over 30 families.
As for Team IMPACT, Walsh said the organization is hoping both to expand geographically and to include children facing different types of adversity. Though no other Brown team has added a child to its roster, Farnham said the program is “life-changing” and that he hopes more Bruno squads will get involved.
With under a month remaining in the hockey regular season schedule, Ethan’s first season as a Bear wi
ll soon be reaching an end. But Farnham, who will be graduating in May, said he has developed a “lifelong relationship” with Ethan, and the season’s end will by no means signal a hitch in the team’s bond with the Bairos family.
“We have different guys in different classes all the way down who are going to take the lead,” he said. “Every guy is so close to Ethan, and he is going to be a part of Brown hockey for as long as he wants to be a part of it.”