With 5,439 cheering fans, pucks flying through the air and fireworks on the ice, Danielle and Caleb Hand’s rehearsal dinner wasn’t average, and it was perfect. Held in a Tsongas Center luxury box with friends and family, the party was another chapter in the couple’s life as River Hawk hockey fans through highs and lows on and off the ice.
The new Mrs. Hand worked at Tully Forum in the mid-90s when the UMass Lowell team — then The Chiefs — played before the Tsongas Arena was built. Her father, Sebastian “Busty” Bongiorno was looking for a local team to support after being disappointed by the Bruins administration. The choice was between Lowell and Merrimack due to their proximity to his home in Methuen, but his daughter’s connection to Lowell made him give them a shot first.
“That was it. I went to the first game and I was hooked,” says Sebastian.
He’s cheered for hundreds of Chiefs and River Hawks, watched several coaches at the helm and moved with many other longtime season ticket holders to the what is now the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell. He greets the same people in section 107 each season and spent many games with his daughter by his side and more recently his son-in-law.
Caleb attended his first hockey game with the Bongiornos a few years ago after meeting Danielle, who was finishing her history degree at the University.
“I’d watched hockey on TV before and couldn’t really follow it or get excited, but it’s totally different being there,” says Caleb. “Now, they might be chatting and miss a play and I’m the one saying, ‘Oh wow, did you see that?’”
This season, the couple have been to every home game, except for the one on their wedding day. It’s been a very different season than last year, which earned the River Hawks’ their first Frozen Four appearance but was bittersweet for the family.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, Danielle was diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia. Instead of cheering from 107, the family more often rallied around the team from home or hospital rooms. They followed the season by television, internet streams and radio while Danielle and Caleb planned their wedding around treatments, knowing next season would be different. They were married on the one year anniversary of her diagnosis.
As the River Hawks made history, the Bongiornos got creative. Several hockey parties sprung up in hospital rooms, especially when the team became Hockey East champions. When a game was switched to a channel Danielle couldn’t get in her hospital room, the family decided to record it and watch it the next morning.
“We had to shut off all contact. No Facebook, no sports shows, anything that could tell us who won,” says Danielle. “It was hard, but it was wonderful when my dad showed up the next morning at 9 a.m., which was really early unless something was wrong, with the DVD.”
They pulled it off and the family watched the game as if it was live, all the way to the River Hawks’ win. Next stop: Pittsburgh.
Determined to see history in-person, Danielle got clearance from her doctors to travel for the River Hawks’ first Frozen Four appearance. Although the team didn’t win, she says the trip was still worth it with the pre-game party and seeing her team on the national stage.
Danielle’s treatments were successful and she was declared to be in remission in April. Now, she’s looking forward to becoming a history teacher.
Throughout the tough months, the River Hawks gave the Bongiorno/Hand family a positive touchstone. Being fans of the team has been and will continue to be an important part of their relationship.
“It certainly hasn’t hurt,” says Danielle.
And what if the dedicated family had split allegiances?
“Well, that would be colorful,” she says with a laugh.
Better to keep it in the River Hawk family.