Thursday, February 25, 2010

T-Birds: Hockey Challenge features former M's Catcher Dan Wilson, actors and local media celebs

Photo Courtesy: RMHC

One of the Seattle Mariners’ best-loved players will show off another side of his athletic prowess this weekend at ShoWare Center in Kent. Former catcher Dan Wilson will lace up the skates and hit the ice as part of the 12th Annual Hockey Challenge, benefitting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington and Alaska.  

Wilson, who played 12 years for the M’s, also played goalie for the hockey team at Barrington High School in suburban Chicago, Illinois. He’ll join a host of celebrities for this year’s Challenge, including actors Michael Rosenbaum (“Smallville”), Jason Thompson (“General Hospital”); 2006 US Olympic hockey bronze medalist Kelly (Stephens) Tysland; media personalities Bill Wixey (Q13 Fox News); Ian Furness (KJR 950AM & play by play announcer for WHL games on FSNW) and former T-Birds Jamie Huscroft, Al Kinisky, Regan Mueller, Blake Knox, Lloyd Shaw, Pat Smith, Danny Lorenz and Ryan Gibbons.  A few “surprise” celebrities and former hockey pros may also make an appearance.

KING 5 Sports Anchor Paul Silvi has been recruited to coach one of the All Star teams. Ian Furness will coach the other team.

But the big heroes of the annual Hockey Challenge are the men and women at Microsoft and who recruit players, form teams and raise money for the Ronald McDonald House Charities.  In the 12 years since the Challenge began as an internal charity game between Microsoft’s US and Canadian divisions, the event has raised nearly  $4 Million dollars for the RMHC and drawn such celebrities as Kiefer Sutherland (“24”), D.B. Sweeney (“Criminal Minds”, “Cutting Edge”), Chad Lowe, Tom Arnold, Paul Guilfoyle (“CSI”); and NHL greats Pat LaFontaine, Bob Sweeney, Bruce Courtnall and the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.

John Barr, who works in Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, got involved with the Challenge six years ago as a player. Last year, he formed one team for the event. This year, he’s recruited enough players for three teams and raised at least $40,000 in the process. Barr says he became interested in the Hockey Challenge while working for a Microsoft vendor in Reno, Nevada, nearly a decade ago.

“I saw Brian Valentine (former Microsoft Senior Vice President, now with and a longtime Hockey Challenge participant) speak about the Challenge some seven or eight years ago. It inspired me to want to play for that team. When I transferred to Corporate (in Seattle), I found a way to get involved with and participate on the Windows team,” Barr remembered.

Since joining his first Windows team six years ago, Barr has increased his participation and fundraising for the Challenge. He says it wasn’t difficult to put together three teams for this year’s event, as there are hundreds of people at Microsoft who play hockey. This weekend, he’ll play on his “E and D” team against the “Microsoft Mystery Team” (a team he put together with players from various Divisions within the company). Those two will face off at 1:30pm on Saturday. A third team he compiled will play earlier, at 11:35am against a team from Barr is most excited about this third team, called the “Spartans,” which is made up of people playing in their first Hockey Challenge.

“Six years ago, when I first participated, it was really cool,” Barr said. “My hope is that I create the same kind of excitement for these people. Not everyone will enjoy it as much as I did, but I just hope that people enjoy it and have a good time and want to do it next year.”

Barr is showing his appreciation the biggest fundraisers on his team by offering them the chance to play on one of the Celebrity All Star teams that face off following the Seattle Thunderbirds/Portland Winterhawks game Saturday night.

The Ronald McDonald House Charities thrive on the enthusiasm and philanthropy exhibited by the participants and donors to events like the Hockey Challenge. More than 80% of their operating costs come from communities and corporations. Just last year alone, the RMHC in Seattle housed more than 700 families with seriously ill children undergoing various medical treatments at nearby Seattle Children’s Hospital. Breaking it down, that’s more than 28,000 nights of housing and services to those families. In addition to the home-like atmosphere, families have use of a communal pantry and can utilize services like daily visits from pet therapy dogs and a program where volunteers come in and cook meals for families that may be a bit too focused on their children’s needs to focus on their own needs.

Vanessa Kirk Briley, RMHC’s Co-Director of Development says all these services are crucial to families, some of whom left homes far away to be with their children. But perhaps the biggest benefit for these families, is meeting others who are facing similar challenges.

She says, “There’s a support system among the families themselves that, even though the staff is here, is something we can’t participate in because they’re going through a unique situation and bond with each other.”

One big highlight of Hockey Challenge weekend for the children, she says, is a visit by members of the Seattle Thunderbirds hockey team.  Players join the kids in their giant playroom and get down to the business of fun, playing everything from foosball to tag, making necklaces or letting kids paint their faces or decorate them with stickers.  Some players, like Greg Scott from last year’s T-Birds team, act as “reporters” and file video dispatches. Here's one of those video dispatches (just click on the title):  2008 Foosball

One of the most visible Hockey Challenge participants recently underwent his own battle with serious illness. Bill Wixey, 10pm News Anchor for Q13 Fox News, has played in the Challenge for 10 of its 12 years.  He says he’s had a great time lining up alongside such stars as Kiefer Sutherland (“24”), NHL great Pat LaFontaine and fellow news anchor, KING 5’s Brad Goode. Bill has always supported the work that RMHC does and has visited the House in Seattle many times. His own cancer fight gives him another perspective.

“I am now much more sympathetic and understand exactly what these brave kids are facing,” Bill said. “Since going public with my fight, I have become a bit of a sounding board for folks who are either dealing with cancer personally know someone who is battling it, or folks who fear they may have cancer.”

Bill took his cancer fight very public; sharing sometimes very painful treatment on the air with his viewers. He also started a blog and posted updates on Facebook and Twitter, which drew thousands of followers, including those who were undergoing their own battles or had successfully beaten cancer. Bill welcomed them all. “I consider it an honor that folks approach me and discuss sensitive health issues with me.”

Bill grew up playing hockey in and around Western Washington and still plays in a lunch league on the Eastside. At last year’s Challenge, he scored the winning goal to give his team the shootout victory. But that’s not all he enjoys about playing in the yearly event.

Bill: “The Challenge, to me, is always a thrill. It's a day where I get to feel like a sort of celebrity, even though I'm really not. I get to hang out with bonafide stars and ask them why they never look to the slot when I am wide open. That's pretty cool.”

This year’s Hockey Challenge gets under way at ShoWare Center on Saturday morning at 9:40am, when the Windows women’s team takes on the Exchange women’s team. Here’s the rest of the schedule:

Hockey Challenge 2010 Schedule
Game 1 - Windows Women vs. Exchange Women, 9:40 a.m.
Game 2 - Microsoft Spartans vs., 11:35 a.m.
Game 3 - Entertainment & Devices vs. Microsoft Mystery Team, 1:30 p.m.
Game 4 - Windows Live vs. MS IT, 3:25 p.m.
Celebrity Autograph Session - 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on west concourse of ShoWare Center
Game 5 - Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Portland Winterhawks, 6:05 p.m.
Game 6 - Celebrity All-Star, immediately following T-Birds/Winterhawks game

A ticket to the T-Birds/Winterhawks game will gain you entry to all the Hockey Challenge events, including the Celebrity Autograph Session and the All Star game. For more information or to buy tickets, go to the T-Birds website. Just click here.

To learn more about the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington and Alaska, including the many ways they help families and how to volunteer your services, time or donate money, just click here.

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