The 11 Day Power Play: Warming Hearts on and off the Ice

Mike Lesakowski played a shift with his son, Liam. (courtesy of Jeff Tracy)

It wasn’t much of a surprise that it took two postponed phone calls and several text messages before I finally caught up with Mike Lesakowski, co-founder of the 11 Day Power Play. And even when I eventually did track him down, he was on the go in his car. “I’m sneaking out of the office,” Lesakowski said before correcting himself. “I’m sneaking out of the rink to go watch my son play. He’s in a showcase this week and he’s got a game at 1 pm.”

Lesakowski is in the home stretch of this year’s edition of the 11 Day Power Play, which got underway July 5 and runs through July 15. The game runs nonstop… 24 hours a day, for 11 straight days.

Putting His Skates Where His Mouth Is

While Lesakowski loves to play hockey and can rightfully lay claim to skating more shifts than any other player, every three-hour shift is completely different and is significant for its own reasons.

He’s already played six shifts (roughly 18 hours of hockey) and has at least two more to go. And that doesn’t include donning the stripes and reffing here and there.

He’s already played with the Original 40 team during the opening night, on a team from his childhood–the Regals, and a group from a local radio station to name a few.

“The Regals, for me, feels really special because it’s guys I played with from when I was a young boy growing up. Guys are coming in from Vermont, Maine, Michigan and Carolina. We probably wouldn’t get together if we weren’t revolving around hockey. That’ll be really special.”

2019 11 Day Power Play
Laughs and razzing are pretty common with the Original 40 players of 2019 11 Day Power Play (Courtesy of Bill Wippert/PicSix Creative)

On Saturday he’ll lace up his skates and play with a group from Fredonia State. “Both guys I played with and some current players–so guys that are as old as me and young as are currently on the team. So that’ll be fun.”

Related: The Longest Hockey Game Ever: The 11-Day Power Play

Then, on Sunday afternoon, Lesakowski will play with the Make-A-Wish team. If that’s not enough, he said, “Then I’ll probably sneak out onto the ice for the final shift, which is the top fundraisers versus the Sabres NHL alumni and Buffalo Beauts. That’ll probably be an hour. So it’ll be eight and change at the end of it all.”

Forging a Bond with Buffalo

What started as a way to raise money for cancer research has blossomed into an event that has found a permanent place on the calendar for hundreds if not thousands of those touched by cancer. For players, volunteers, fans and families that have been a part of the event, it’s almost hard to imagine life without the 11 Day Power Play.

2019 11 Day Power Play - July 8, 2019
The halls and concourses of Harborcenter are filled with inspirational art. (Courtesy of Bill Wippert/PicSix Creative)

Born from a simple idea by founders Mike and Amy Lesakowski, the 11 Day Power Play has given individuals of all ages and businesses of all sizes an opportunity and a place to rally. It’s inspired the hockey community to make a difference, renewing our spirit in humankind while bringing out our best.

“It never ceases to amaze me how generous the people of Buffalo are and how willing they are to help others. To see their generosity and to see players raise the money … so many players put on their own fundraising events, whether it was a BBQ or a meat raffle. One guy did a 24-hour-long video game–he never slept–and he got donations. It’s a lot of fun to go to the fundraising part and to meet so many people and we got to do a lot of that. To see their effort was really amazing. It’s really a source of pride for us. We can’t thank them enough… the captains and the players and the donors.”

The Feeling Inside Harborcenter

The energy inside Harborcenter, both on and off the ice, is beyond contagious and heartwarming. Whether a fan is making a sign to support their skater, writing a message of love and support on the Wall of Wisdom, buying some snazzy merchandise or simply attending as a fan to help memorialize a loved one, it’s impossible for everyone not to get caught up in the bond that’s shared. Some are paying back while others are paying it forward.

2019 11 Day Power Play signage
The fan support has been tremendous this year, according to Lesakowski. (Courtesy of Bill Wippert/PicSix Creative)

“One of my favorite things is when people walk in Harborcenter and maybe they don’t really understand it completely. But then when they get there, they see the people playing, they see signs for loved ones. They see the Wall of Hope, the Wall of Wisdom and they get it. Once you’re there, it’s a really cool vibe. For whatever reason, this year, just feels …  I don’t know… there’s such a good feeling in the building. There’s lots of good energy. It’s been really fulfilling thus far.”

The Wall of Wisdom
The Wall of Wisdom offers players a place to reflect and leave a personal message of inspiration or reflection. (Courtesy of Bill Wippert/PicSix Creative)

There’s been a little more foot traffic, due in part to more players participating. More family and friends that are coming out to support the players. “I love meeting the players, too,” beamed Lesakowski. “I try to meet them before or after their shift in the locker room. I’ll even hop on the bench while they’re playing, just to say hello and say thank you for playing. I wish I could do it every single time, but it’s physically impossible.”

The Spirit of Buffalo

In its third year, the event continues to receive tremendous support from Western New York. “Man, we keep saying it and it probably sounds cliché, but it really is such a great community. Such a giving community. If you think about it, the majority of the funds that are raised are on the individual level, so each of these roughly 2,500 players goes out and seeks donations. It’s person to person. Person to business. It never seems to be an issue that people will always give… $5, $10, $100 whatever they can.”

Great Causes to Rally Around

The beneficiaries of 11 Day Power Play are three incredible organizations that directly impact Western New York. The continuous 11-day-long games raise critically-needed funds for cutting-edge cancer research and wellness programs at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. They support and improve quality of life for children, adults and families affected by cancer through Camp Good Days. And they grant wishes and amazing experiences to kids with life-threatening illnesses by Make-A-Wish Western New York.

2019 11 Day Power Play
There are many heroes participating in the 2019 11 Day Power Play Community Shift. (Courtesy of Bill Wippert/PicSix Creative)

“People know the money’s going to great places, too. Roswell, Make-A-Wish and Camp Good Days are amazing places. We try to make sure people see the good stuff that they’re doing, most people already know, but we remind them of that. Buffalo’s just a great place.”

Raising Money and Hope

The 2019 Community Shift edition of the 11 Day Power Play has already raised $1.5 million, crushing last year’s total of $1.28 million. And it’s still going. “It’s exciting,” said Lesakowski. “I kind of got the feeling, based on the number of players early on, and the number of applicants and registered players early on, that we were going to surpass what we did in the previous year.”

“It was pretty cool because right before the event started, is exactly when we got to the $1.28 million which we raised last year. Then, last night while I was playing, it was announced that we got to the $1.5 million mark. And that was a really cool feeling because I didn’t think we would get to that level.”

The 2019 11 Day Power Play Wall of Wisdom
Players skating in the 11 Day Power Play can write a note on the Wall of Wisdom. (Courtesy of Jeff Tracy)

It’s a pretty incredible number for an event that is only in its third year. Lesakowski struggled a bit to find the right words to describe his feelings and even chuckled at himself. His charismatic laugh and self-deprecating style are part of what makes him so approachable.

“The goodwill that we’re feeling from the community is just amazing. And everywhere I look on social media, there are people posting about it,” said Lesakowski. “We’ve also got tons of news people here. And I don’t say that in a boastful way–I say it in a very prideful way. It’s been pretty great.”

2019 11 Day Power Play shift shot
Most shifts have their photo taken at 2019 11 Day Power Play. (Courtesy of Jeff Tracy)

Since the original game in 2017, when 40 everyday guys captured widespread attention by skating in continuous shifts to play an 11-day nonstop hockey game, the event has raised more than $4 million for cancer research. Closing ceremonies for the 2019 11 Day Power Play Community Shift will be on July 15 and are open the public.

“I can’t believe we’re three years into it,” said Lesakowski. “We were just going to do one event and raise $1 million for Roswell and now it’s turned in to a community event with 2,500 players. It’s just surreal. I couldn’t be more proud.”