Friday, October 31, 2008

Hockey Fights Cancer

I’ve been reading about how different teams are marking “Hockey Fights Cancer” this month, and my respect has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s heartwarming to see what different teams are doing to raise awareness and money for cancer charities. All 30 teams are taking part by having players wear special emblems on their helmets, and having coaches and broadcast staff wear special purple ties and pins.

But as I delved deeper into my research for an article in another publication, I was struck by how much more some teams do to celebrate “Hockey Fights Cancer.”

Here are just a few:

Detroit Red Wings. This team is simply amazing. The Wings rolled out the red… err… pink carpet on October 24th during the game against the Atlanta Thrashers. Players used pink tape on their sticks during the pre-game skate then autographed those sticks for a silent auction. The ties also were autographed and auctioned off. They also auctioned off: a specially designed goalie mask signed by Ty Conklin, Dominik Hasek, Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood; and Valtteri Filppula’s game-worn jersey from the January 2, 2007 game during which the team retired Steve Yzerman’s #19. This could have been enough, but they went even further. Every fan who wore pink to the game was eligible to win autographed Red Wings memorabilia. The fan with the best pink outfit won an autographed Chris Chelios jersey. Think this is all? Think again. The team set up a booth to sell breast cancer awareness items. The wives and girlfriends sold $20 pucks featuring a player’s autograph. And to cap it off, the team hosted breast cancer patients, survivors and their families in an executive suite.

San Jose Sharks. This team didn’t designate one night for “Hockey Fights Cancer” events. They spread it out over several nights. The Sharks held auctions of autographed memorabilia at games on October 14 and 18. They also hosted “Team in Training” honorees for the October 14th game. Proceeds from that night’s auction benefited Camp Kesem at Stanford University. Camp Kesem is a summer camp for children between the ages of 6 and 13 whose parents are cancer patients and survivors. For the October 18th game, the Sharks hosted the Children’s Cancer Community, which helps families who have a child with cancer by offering up programs like monthly support groups, educational scholarships, cancer survival kits and a library. To cap things off, Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov and forward Jody Shelley hosted a meet and greet at each game with young cancer patients and their families.

Philadelphia Flyers. This team has taken “Hockey Fights Cancer” to a personal level. They’ve teamed up with Rosemary Brahin, a local woman who is battling breast cancer, to get out the message about the importance of breast cancer awareness and the need for early detection. Rosemary is in remission and has launched her own production company to produce stories for the group Rosemary’s story has touched goalie Marty Biron, who lost a cousin following a two and a half year battle with breast cancer. He also counts and aunt and grandmother among cancer survivors. The Flyers set up special booths for their game on October 13th, to sell special items with all proceeds benefiting and another charity, “Living Beyond Breast Cancer.” Both groups had representatives on hand to answer questions and hand out information. Fans were encouraged to wear pink or lavender to the game and anyone who bought an item from were entered into a drawing to win a jersey autographed by Biron.

New York Islanders. This team’s approach to celebrating “Hockey Fights Cancer” touched me deeply. The team invited cancer survivors or their families to take part in pre-game activities on October 23rd. The man who sang the National Anthem lost his wife to cancer. They invited an 8 year old boy whose leukemia is in remission, to be stick boy for the game. The Executive Director of the cancer charity 1 in 9 Hewlett House dropped the ceremonial puck. Players used pink tape then autographed them for a silent auction. Members of 1 in 9 Hewlett House, Long Island Breast Cancer Action Caltion and Cancer Care of Long Island, set up booths to answer questions and hand out information.

Washington Capitals. The Caps hosted their fundraising night on October 18th. They paid tribute to season ticket holders who have battled, beaten, helped treat or lost loved ones to cancer. They invited these men, women and children to center ice for a special ceremony. Among those who took part, were Caps players Matt Bradley and Shaone Morrison, who both lost their mothers to cancer. The team also auctioned off autographed practice jerseys from ten players, including star Alexander Ovechkin. They also auctioned off limited edition “Hockey Fights Cancer” jerseys autographed by various players. They also invited representatives from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to sell special items and share information about the charity.

Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks held their "Hockey Fights Cancer" event on Tuesday, October 28th. The team invited three cancer charities: The Canadian Cancer Society, BC Cancer Agency and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to set up information booths at GM Place. A group of young cancer patients from the Oncology ward of Children's hospital was invited to watch the Canucks take on the Bruins in comfort, in a luxury suite purchased by goalie and Captain Robert Luongo. The suite is called "Lui's Crease Club" and is located in the 200 level of GM Place.

Dallas Stars. The Stars held their event on October 25th and for one player, the pain is still fresh. Defenseman Phillipe Boucher’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer last year. He still chose to take part in the event because he knows so many people who are dealing with the same battle, feeling the same painful loss. And according to Stars fan and Connector TrueFan, the team donated $10,000 to the Clayton Dabney Foundation for Kids with Cancer. It was founded after 6 year old Clayton lost his battle with cancer.

Pittsburgh Penguins. I saved my favorite team for last. The Penguins went all out for "Hockey Fights Cancer". Sidney Crosby has purchased a luxury suite at Mellon Arena for various charities to use. The first guests were a group of young cancer patients from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The Penguins coaching, management and broadcast staff are also sporting the customary purple ties and pins. Wives and girlfriends of Penguins players handed out commemorative ribbon pins to the first 3,000 women entering the arena for the October 18th game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team invited representatives from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the American Cancer Society to set up information booths at the game. The Penguins are also among a number of teams selling a commemorative book: "The NHL Hockey Year in Photographs".

I could go on and on. Time and time again, I’ve seen players show their softer sides, often out of the glare of the spotlight.

I’ve written about tough guys who will go out of their way to help others. Tough guys like Georges Laraque, who drove several hours to visit a dying boy because the boy’s last wish was to meet his hero.

These are guys who, while some may be very well paid for their talents, don’t pull down the sometimes obscene salaries commanded, no, demanded by their counterparts in other sports, especially baseball and football.

These are guys who celebrate Stanley Cup wins by taken the cup back to their hometowns, to share their victory with the humble communities who helped raise them. Who release their inner kids by using the Cup to make a massive and memorable ice cream sundae to be shared by anyone with a spoon.

Reading about all the tremendous things the NHL, its teams and players do under the banner of “Hockey Fights Cancer” proves again that I have picked the right sport to follow, and count myself lucky to call other NHL fans, “friend.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Remembering James

“He had an easy smile.”

I’ve read those words many times, but never have they rung so true as when I use them to describe my friend James. When he smiled, his entire face lit up and you felt your own face light up, even if you were in a dark mood. James did not have a mean bone in his body and nowhere was that more evident than his million-watt smile.

I met James and his brother Eric in Germany. Our fathers were stationed there and somehow, we wound up on the same traveling bowling team. James was 2 years younger than me. Eric was 4 years younger. Where James was languid, laid back and comfortable wherever he happened to be sitting, Eric was bright, bubbly and ready for action. The two brothers complemented each other perfectly and both doted on their mother, one of the most beautiful and vivacious women I had ever seen. I loved being around them because it usually meant that a lot of laughter would ensue. And it did.

I remember watching James, Eric and a few others mooning other cars during a long bus ride between Kaiserslautern and somewhere (maybe Spangdahlem, maybe Hanau) to bowl in a tournament.

I remember long hours spent at the Vogelweh bowling alley, eating fries and playing those blasted video games. (Okay, I did not play that often. I sucked. I mostly watched the guys play)

I remember James deciding that I needed to learn how to drive and that he was going to be the one to teach me. In his friend Chris’ BMW. In the parking lot of the commissary at Vogelweh. In his disarmingly charming way, he talked Chris into actually taking part! Next thing you know, I’m behind the wheel of a Beemer, James planted next to me, Chris in the back seat with this “Oh, sh*t, what have I agreed to?” kind of look on his face. I remember starting the car. I remember hitting the gas. And I remember James yelling, “STOP! STOP!” and mashing the brakes so hard, we all nearly went through the windshield. End of lesson.

I remember, several months later, running into James in another parking lot. He had had a bit too much to drink and could not drive, but did not want to leave his car. Even drunk, he talked me into driving his car. I still did not know how to drive, yet I maneuvered his Beetle to my house. Did I mention it was a stick shift? I helped him up to our apartment, where he, my sister Kim and I watched movies until he sobered up.

I lost touch with James when my family moved back to the States, but several years later, reconnected with Eric. Eric put me back in touch with James, who was in Germany with their mother. We talked on the phone. We wrote letters- yes, actual, handwritten letters. He did not have a computer, nor do I think he wanted one. He wrote long letters talking about everything and nothing. He talked about his job. He talked about his mom. He talked about the child he had not seen because he was in Germany and the child was in Florida. That was the only time I heard sadness, regret. Every other time, it was hard to miss the smile in James’ voice. Every conversation immediately brought his face to mind, split wide with a grin, eyes crinkling and twinkling. We talked about me visiting his mother and him in Germany. We talked about how Eric lives kind of close to me (he’s in Oregon, I’m in Washington). We talked about where we would go to drink. Some of the old stomping grounds.

This morning, I received an email from Eric. Entitled: “Sad News”, it was short and to the point:

“I regret to inform you. My only brother James died unexpectedly in his sleep last night 10/22. He was 42.”

As I read those words, the years sped by in fast-forward through my brain. James bowling. James joking. James laughing as I try to make him stop smoking, even as he lights another cigarette. But most of all, I see James grinning that million-megawatt smile. And I cried. I cried for Eric. I cried for their mom. I cried for their dad. But most selfish of all, I cried for myself because I will never hear that lazy voice. Never see that brilliant grin.

But I will always remember.

Rest easy, my friend. I hope you are at peace.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hockey Heartbreak: A Tale of Two Moms

This is the story of two mothers.
Both have sons who live and breathe hockey and aspire to reach that elite level- the NHL. Both boys enter the NHL draft. One gets picked to be the New York Rangers top prospect. The other learns he has a heart problem that could cause a sudden and fatal heart attack. That boy gives up his NHL dreams, but receives a surprise. The new owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning uses his last draft pick, to select this boy and help fulfill a tiny bit of that dream, even if only in a symbolic way. The boy with the heart problem goes to college and tries to adjust to a life of hockey-- without being able to play.

The mother of the boy diagnosed with the heart problem agonizes for him, but thanks her lucky stars that he is alive. 19 year old David Carle has a full-ride scholarship to the University of Denver. Even though he can never play hockey again, he will help the team on the sidelines. He will live the NHL dream through his older brother Matt, who now plays for the team that drafted David, the Tampa Bay Lightning. However unhappy he may be, however well he may be adjusting to his new life, David is alive, his heart keeping the beat.

The mother of the boy picked by the Rangers probably beamed with pride at the thought that her boy will one day leave Siberia and live the NHL dream in America, with one of the oldest and best teams in the league. In the meantime, he was honing his skills in the Kontinental Hockey League, as a member of the Avangard Omsk. His skill already rivaled countrymen Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Bure, all NHL stars. He was maturing under the tutelage of former NHL great Jaromir Jagr. The Rangers and their fans could not wait until this boy was ready to take the Big Apple by storm. The future looked bright for 19 year old Alexei Cherepanov.

That bright future imploded in crushing heartbreak this week, when Alexei collapsed during a game and died. It turns out, he suffered from a condition that kept blood from reaching his heart and organs. He suffered an apparent heart attack while sitting on the bench next to Jagr, talking about a missed scoring opportunity. He died at the hospital.
Now, there are reports that an ambulance stationed at the arena left before the game was over and had to be called back. It did not return until 25 minutes after Alexei collapsed. There are reports that emergency workers did not have a defibrillator on hand to shock his heart back into action. Some Russian lawmakers are calling for a criminal investigation.

None of this takes away from the fact that a mother has lost her son.
No criminal investigation will bring him back.
No amount of finger pointing will ease the pain in her own heart, as she faces the crushing task of laying her boy and his dreams to rest forever.

My heart goes out to both of these mothers.
I, too, have a son. He has no heart problems. He does not play hockey.
But I worry about his health and safety just the same.

In that way, I am no different from David or Alexei's mothers, or anyone else with a son or daughter.
I don’t have to explain, and neither do they.
We already know.
We are Mothers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Toughness and Tears Mark Canucks' Home Opener

Hockey is supposed to be a sport for tough guys. Make it to the NHL level and you can expect bone-crunching hits, lightning quick speed and spectacular goals. But Friday night, toughness gave way to tears at GM Place in Vancouver, as the Canucks and their fans remembered a promising career cut tragically short. They paid tribute to Luc Bourdon, a 21 year old defenseman, who died in a motorcycle accident on May 29 near his hometown of Shippegan, New Brunswick.

In the days and weeks that followed the accident, the Canucks honored Luc's memory, by setting up a makeshift memorial outside GM Place, and online at the team's website, to let fans share their grief, and remember a young man who overcame juvenile arthritis to become a skilled junior player, then see his NHL dreams come true in 2005, when Vancouver drafted him 10th overall.

On Friday night, the Canucks took additional steps to make sure Luc's dreams are not forgotten. Before the game, they unveiled a special memorial wall at the entrance to GM Place. Then, they held a pre-game ceremony that included a selfless act from a Canucks fan. The woman who received the last jersey Luc wore as part of a "shirts off their back" promotion, gave that jersey to Luc's mother. The ceremony was capped off by a video tribute to Luc's career, from childhood to the NHL, accompanied by a live acoustic performance of the song, "Big League" by Tom Cochrane and Ken Greer of the Canadian band Red Rider. I barely maintained my composure through that haunting performance, then finally lost it as I saw tough players on the ice fighting back tears, including goalie and newly-minted captain Roberto Luongo.

Anyone who thought such an emotional ceremony would sap the Canucks of their energy and focus, was in for a big surprise. While the Calgary Flames dominated most of the first period, out shooting the Canucks, they could not get past Luongo. Then, Vancouver started making plays. Twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin teamed up for the Canucks' first goal before the first period ended.

The second period brought more scoring chances for Vancouver: Steve Bernier notched a goal just 23 seconds into the period, taking a pass from Henrik Sedin. Just over a minute later, Ryan Kesler put the Canucks up 3-0.

Alex Burrows joined the scoring fray in the third period, with a shot from inside the face-off circle. Matthias Ohlund took advantage of a Vancouver power play about halfway through the period, and Rick Rypien sealed things for the Canucks with a short-handed goal in the last five minutes of the game.

Goalie Roberto Luongo made 25 saves and chalked up the 39th shutout of his career as the Canucks blanked the Flames, 6-0.

After the game, several players admitted that they'd had a little trouble regaining their focus following the emotional tribute to Luc Bourdon. But Alex Burrows, Luc's closest friend on the team, told CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" crew that he felt Luc's spirit there that night, helping push the team to victory. Other players said that they will continue to remember Luc's enthusiasm and talent, and proudly wear his number "28" on their helmets all season.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

In five hours, the puck will drop for my team. It’s now 7:00am (Pacific Time) as I sit at my kitchen table and think about where the road has taken me since June, when the Penguins lost the Stanley Cup finals to the Red Wings. I have followed the Pens off season moves (lose Hossa, Malone, Roberts, Ruutu, Laraque, Hall. Gain Satan, Fedotenko, Goddard. Bring up Goligoski). I have agonized at off season and preseason injuries (Whitney, Gonchar). I followed the preseason action online and via podcast. The Penguins looked pretty good, winning 4 out of 5. Seems like whatever the new lines are doing to gel, may just be working. But something else happened this summer that will make me approach this new season with new eyes.

I discovered NHL Connect.

I can’t remember now just how I came about it. I may have gone to looking for information. I may have accidentally clicked something on the Penguins website that sent me to A north wind may have swept through my kitchen and onto my laptop, sending me to However I got here, I got here. And fell through the looking glass into an amazing new world.
It started out innocently enough. I created a profile, got a few “friends” requests from members. I uploaded photos. Filled out my “interests”. Got a few more “friends” requests. I wrote my first blog, about reliving the 1980 Miracle on Ice through my father’s eyes. Then, I made the first of what would become one of the best group of friends I’ve ever had. And the most amazing thing? They all like different teams, including teams that hate the Penguins!

There’s K_Bennett, JuiceinLA, jlewings, Mchiconsky. Rabid Red Wings fans. All offered a hand of friendship to a girl still licking wounds from that stinging Stanley Cup loss. Not one gloated, patronized or bullied. Instead, they commiserated, sharing their own past heartbreak during years of Cup drought in Hockeytown. All commented on a blog I wrote celebrating Darren McCarty’s personal victory that put him back on the path to the Cup. A fitting footnote to this was Juice’s blog about how D-Mac spent his day with the Cup, creating a mondo ice cream sundae that he shared with his children and anyone else wandering into that ice cream shop.

There’s TealGirl730, Yodaman, Allintrbl, Sportsfanatic, sjsharksfan. As you can guess, super Sharks fans. Hands of friendship, excellent blogs. I LOVE Teal girl’s “Summer School Term Paper” blog. If you haven’t read it, you need to. Allintrbl has shared his heartbreak over a terrible misalignment of dates (Sharks opening day = day of dog owner training class. Miss the class, pay a $300 fine). He dutifully sold his tickets. The date of the class gets changed. Oh, your blood is boiling in his defense, isn’t it? It has a happy ending. You can read all about it if you go to his page and read his successive blogs. Same with Yodaman, Sportsfanatic, sjsharksfan. Speaking of sjsharksfan, I enjoy getting her mass messages telling all of us to have a wonderful weekend.

There’s NYRFan78, JHRangers. My two very good friends from NYC. Rabid Rangers fans. We should hate each other, right? I mean, the Penguins knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs. No such luck. JHRangers is one of my closest friends. Always cheerful, unless you diss one of his friends. I think we saw evidence of that during an unfortunate time this summer. JH also managed to wrangle a group of us together for a Fantasy Hockey league that promises lots of fun, trash talk, and ice cream.

There’s Macksayev, HockeyFan48. Sabres fans of the highest caliber. Through Macksayev, I am also learning about the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. HockeyFan48 was recently honored as Featured Member, and for good reason. Take a stroll through her profile and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s CCD3M, my Capitals friend. His blogs are always entertaining and he doesn’t just write about Washington. You need a taste of his humor.

There’s Strawman64. He may be, hands down, the wittiest, most acerbic person I’ve ever met. I don’t have enough words to describe the journey you take when you read one of his blogs. Word of Warning. If you are thin-skinned, this Bruin fan’s musings may not be for you. He shows me how silly it is to take myself too seriously. Lesson learned.

There’s TXHockeyCowgirl, Truefan. Two dedicated Stars fans. Two extremely friendly people. TXHockeyCow is today’s Featured Member at Connect. Another fantastic choice. I have learned so much about the Stars, just by reading her blogs. And TrueFan always makes me smile.

There’s HockeyLuver. He’s a Canucks fan living in the South. He’s always got a nice word- and his blogs are definitely worth reading. I’m glad he survived Hurricane Gustav (Mchiconsky, too!!)

There’s SuperDave. A super Leafs fan who is so knowledgeable about so many things related to hockey. Not only that, but he’s a super nice guy to boot. His blogs are entertaining and informative (read his account of his day with the Cup, and the blogs from the Prospects Tourney in Traverse City). And his playoff beard video is must-see.
There’s DashHopes. A Montreal fan who has promised to take good care of Georges Laraque, who I hated to see leave the Penguins.

There’s a group of friends who surprise me with their friendship, because they’re all Flyers fans. Yes. The cross-state rivals. Who should hate me on sight because I sport the black and gold on my profile. They don’t (or well, they’ve said they do, anyway). There’s Fish’nRich, Twentytwo, Dave25, Alice. Okay, they take friendly shots sometimes, but hey, it’s all in fun, right? Right?
Seriously. I have read some of the best blogs at this site from this group of Flyers fans. And they don’t write just about their Philly guys, either. I can’t single out any blog. You have to read them all. You may not agree, but you will understand.

Then, there’s my core group of Pens friends. CheckmatePens, Mel1004, Piggylady87, Pens_in_09. I know we will cheer together, yell together, cry together. And when things get soo serious, Mel will find some funny piece of video or some crazy blog topic to make us laugh and bring the sun back into our lives a little.

The oddest thing about my summer of Connect friendships? I’ve actually written to some of my non-Pens friends that I would cheer for their team, when the team is not playing mine. And you know what?

I mean it!

I wish everyone’s teams a great season. And when our guys meet each other on the ice, I’ll cheer hard for my guys. But if your guys win, I won’t begrudge you. Okay, maybe a little. Okay, maybe a little more than a little.

But I do know this.
You guys make this league more real, more fun, and for that, I thank you.