by | Dec 5, 2018 | News

About five years ago, Amy and Mike Lesakowski were driving on the Niagara Thruway above downtown when Mike pointed to HarborCenter, then under construction, and told his wife that’s where they would someday hold a record-breaking hockey tournament to raise money for charity.

“I was like, ‘OK, honey,’ ” Amy Lesakowki recalled Sunday with a laugh.

Amy is a breast cancer survivor, and she and her husband had thought for years about leveraging this area’s passion for hockey in the campaign against cancer. But it was the death of Mike’s mother, Evelyn, in 2016 that spurred them to action.

The result is the 11 Day Power Play, which in two years has raised nearly $2.5 million toward cancer research and other causes.

Last year, 40 amateur players divided into two teams pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion at HarborCenter to set a a mark recognized by the Guinness World Records for longest continuous hockey game.

The 2018 tournament, which ran from July 5 to Sunday afternoon, expanded to 102 teams, about 1,500 players and 400 volunteers for the round-the-clock community event. They included sled hockey players, Sabres alumni and veterans of the 2017 endurance test who came back for more this year.

“It’s unbelievable how it gets the community involved,” said Larry Ralph, a Buffalo resident who took part last year and returned this month to play and to referee games.

Amy Lesakowski, the tournament’s executive director, has been in remission since March 2009. Around that time, she took part in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and, while she raised a good amount for the charity, she said she thought a hockey tournament would be well-received here.

“Buffalo’s a hockey town, and so many families are affected by cancer,” she said.

Amy and Mike Lesakowski set aside the notion for a number of years, but returned to the idea in 2016 after Mike’s mother was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took her life.

“She really was the inspiration,” said Amy. “She loved hockey.”

The Lesakowskis, with help from a small network of volunteers and corporate sponsors, organized the first tournament without knowing how the public would respond.

They centered the event on the campaign to break the world record for longest hockey game played without a break, with 40 players skating up to their physical limits.

“It’s like running a marathon,” said Kenny Corp, known as “Corpy,” a Riverside native who now lives in the Albany area. He played professionally overseas and played roller hockey with the now-defunct Buffalo Wings and started training about a year in advance for the 2017 tournament.

“The first night I was on an IV, I was cramping so much,” said Corp, who stuck with it through the grueling shifts of four hours on the ice, eight hours off. When it was over, he said Sunday at HarborCenter, “I wanted to keep going.”

The tournament captivated the region and raised $1.2 million in its first year.

After last year’s tournament, the Lesakowskis heard from enough people interested in the 11 Day Power Play that they and the steering committee decided to open it up to as many teams as possible that wanted to take part.

Teams raised money and signed up for at least one of 120 four-hour shifts held over the 11 days. Some teams, and players, took more than one shift, as did many volunteers.

Mike, Amy and event manager Sara Schumacher never left the rink complex during the 11 days. They would take turns catching a few hours of sleep each day at the HarborCenter Marriott, Amy said.

They and their volunteers made sure there was enough food and merchandise, the players had clean jerseys, their locker room was cleaned out, the rink announcer had accurate rosters for team introductions, players stayed hydrated and teams were welcomed and sent where they needed to go.

“There are a lot of things going on, logistically, every day,” Amy said.

Players said they appreciated the effort that went into the tournament and said they were glad to help a good cause. Ex-Sabre and current team broadcaster Rob Ray played on a team of Sabres alumni and Buffalo Beauts put together by another former Sabre, Patrick Kaleta.

“There’s so many golf tournaments,” said Ray, but the 11 Day Power Play is a rare chance for amateur players, former pros and fans to indulge their love of hockey on behalf of a good cause.

The event supports Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Make-A-Wish Western New York and Camp Good Days.

Keith Waldron played on a team of ROAR Logistics employees, friends and family. They raised the second-most money of any team in the tournament. The 63-year-old played a 6 to 10 a.m. shift last weekend.

“It was very much worth it,” said Waldron, who lost his 20-year-old son, Patrick, to Hodgkin lymphoma four years ago. His wife, Julie, wore a Team PatStrong shirt to the rink Sunday, and they left that message on a Wall of Wisdom covered with quotes, words of encouragement and other statements behind one goal at the rink.

Tiffany Resetarits was there with her daughter, Charlotte, and her son, Matthew, both 4, and her mother-in-law, Marcia, to cheer on her husband, Steven, in the sled hockey game Sunday afternoon. Steven is a member of the Buffalo Sabres Sled Vets and an Air Force veteran.

“Buffalo is such a great city,” said Tiffany, a transplant from California. “We truly live up to our name, the City of Good Neighbors.”

As Amy Lesakowski took a brief break Sunday to talk to a visitor, she said the 2018 tournament had raised $1.25 million as of midafternoon, although counting of corporate pledges and matching donations will take two or three weeks.

What are they planning for next year? Lesakowski said they will keep the 11-day format, but make some adjustments.

“We want it to be as special as possible every year,” Lesakowski said.