While the world has stopped, schools have closed their doors for the rest of the year and all but essential businesses have shut down, cancer doesn’t care. Cancer doesn’t care about social distancing. It won’t temporarily pause and wait until this crisis is over. It’s a deadly disease that has no regard for anyone’s schedule.
That message became crystal clear when I caught up with Amy Lesakowski, who along with her husband Mike, co-founded the 11 Day Power Play back in 2017. Since then, the annual event–a continuous, 24-hour, 11-day-long game has raised more than $4.1 million for cancer research in Western New York.
The 11 Day Power Play has several beneficiaries, including Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center which conducts cutting-edge cancer research and wellness programs, Camp Good Days which supports quality of life for children, adults and families affected by cancer, Make-A-Wish Western New York which grants wishes and amazing experiences to kids with life-threatening illnesses, and Oishei Children’s Hospital.
As a result of the pandemic, money donated by The 11 Day Power Play will also kick off a new fund to support one of the first precision-medicine studies of COVID-19. The goal is to develop a blood test to predict who will develop severe COVID-19 illness. The 11 Day Power Play has pledged $150,000 toward immunotherapy research.
A Different Kind of Hope
Hope is always in abundance during the 11 Day Power Play. The community-wide event brings together family and friends from all over Western New York and beyond to honor and remember those who have lost loved ones to cancer, to fight for those still fighting their fight, and to celebrate survivors.
It’s a moving, emotionally charged 11 days full of both smiles, hugs and tears. The Wall of Wisdom is a physical manifestation of that. It’s a special place for players to reflect and leave a personal message of inspiration or reflection.
This year, hope has a whole different meaning. Especially since the game, slated to run from July 8-19, may not be able to take place.
“I think people are still hopeful we can play,” said Lesakowski after a deep breath that hung in the air with frustration. “There’s a lot of hope to be able to gather in ways that would be safe. People are hopeful we can do something. But… we just need to wait and see.”
It’s More Than a Game
Ask any of the players, volunteers, fans, doctors or beneficiaries of the 11 Day Power Play and they’ll tell you that the 11 Day Power Play is much more than a hockey game. While the actual game on the ice is the cornerstone of the event, it’s just one aspect of it that makes it special.
There’s a sense of unity and fellowship that underlies the event since it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been affected by cancer in one way or another. The reasons for getting involved are often deeply personal.
The determination and preparation that goes into fundraising over several months includes moments of self reflection, camaraderie, strengthening and/or renewing friendships.
And then there’s the impact of the fundraising that has touched so many.
There’s no doubt that this pandemic and subsequent quarantine has been a minor setback for what’s become a much-anticipated event on Buffalo’s summer calendar.
Though COVID-19 may have slowed down the world, the fundraising continues. Since March, when the world basically shutdown and businesses closed to flatten the curve, the 11 Day Power Play has raised more than $200,000. “People with cancer can’t just stop. Kids that have cancer can’t just stop,” said Lesakowski matter of factly. “So we need to keep going.”
A Close Shave
Like every year, Mike Lesakowski, has two personal goals for the 11 Day Power Play. The first is to play the most shifts of any player–something he rightly says he can control as the coordinator of the event. The second, is to be the event’s top fundraiser.
In the spirit of that goal, last Friday, he held a shave-a-thon of sorts. With his daughter Julia armed with hair clippers, shaving cream and a razor, Mike had his head totally shaved while raising a mind boggling $2,500.
It was another Lesakowski family bonding experience, as their son Liam eventually grabbed the razor to help his father. Amy played cameraman and livestreamed the entire event on Facebook.
After going “Mr. Clean bald,” Mike continued to build on the moment, offering $500 toward a $2,000 donation for anyone who matched his dew. While the symbolism of being hairless in the name of fundraising for cancer was not lost, it was also met with humor and joy. Several friends chimed in the comments section that he needed to shave his eyebrows, too. Mike’s quick reply was, sure… for $1,000 per brow.
Following CDC Guidelines
Amy, Mike and their team know safety is paramount to hosting a successful event.
“We are in constant communication with Roswell Park, which is our primary beneficiary and partner, and with leaders in our community just to be sure we’re on the right track with planning,” said Amy. “We’re going to follow whatever the CDC guidelines are and our local, state and national government as the puck drop draws near.”
Like any business or organization, the highly contagious COVID-19 virus may force the 11 Day Power Play to pivot from its original plan. “We have ideas and plans if we can’t be on the ice. Do we do something virtual? Do we modify the event if we can have something on the ice to keep people safe? There’s a lot of brainstorming going on,” said Lesakowski.
“I think people in Buffalo want to play hockey and can’t wait to get back on the ice. People are anxious. They want to know what we’re doing. It’s really difficult—if we don’t have the ice, we can’t really have the event. It’s one of those things. You just have to wait and see. Some things are opening up, but sports and recreation is the fourth tier planned to open.”
Ice or no ice, the 11 Day Power Play will carry on. “One way or another, we’re going to find a way to do something,” said Amy resolutely.
Fun and Helping the Front Lines
The “original 40″– the men who played in the first 11 Day Power Play–had some fun early on during the quarantine while social distancing.
Beyond keeping things light, they’ve continued to find other ways to help.
“Our players and our captains are eager to continue to support cancer patients. For cancer patients, having this virus out there is only further complicating their lives. So we’ve had continual fundraising going on. We’re really proud of that.”
The 11 Day Power Play players and volunteers, along with their blue-furred mascot, Petey Power Play, have pitched in to help the medical staff on the front lines. They’ve partnered with several local restaurants who have graciously donated food to deliver meals, goodie bags and smiles to the faces of patients, caregivers and staff.
Strive for Five… Million
Despite the ever-changing times, the generosity of the Greater Western New York community hasn’t changed.
The Lesakowski’s are resolved to surpass the $5 million mark in less than 4 years. It’s clear they’re pulling out all the stops. And this year, they’re even pulling out their clippers.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”