Published August 3, 2017
Three members of the UB community were among the 40 hockey players who recently raised $1.2 million for Roswell Park Cancer Institute while breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous hockey game.
UBIT staff member Steven Roder and UB Engineering alumni Michael Lesakowski (MS ’08) and Peter Merlo (BS ’93, MS ‘98) — both of whom received their degrees from the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering — each raised at least $10,000 in donations. All three have a personal connection to RPCI.
Lesakowski’s wife, Amy, was treated for breast cancer at RPCI; Merlo was treated at the cancer hospital for a benign brain tumor; and Roder’s father also was treated there as well.
The Lesakowskis started thinking of ways to give back to RPCI in 2009 after Amy’s treatment. And after Michael’s mother died in 2016, the couple “put their efforts back in earnest and started planning,” Michael said.
They joined with several other volunteers to organize the 11-Day Power Play hockey game that took place June 22 through July 3 at HarborCenter.
Merlo, who met Michael Lesakowski met eight years ago when they began playing hockey together, says RPCI saved his life.
“If Roswell Park wasn’t there, I would be dead,” he says. “I had a golf ball-sized tumor between my brainstem and cerebellum. It was benign, but once Roswell found it, they removed it right away.”
A principal engineer for the city of Buffalo’s water division, Merlo has been an athlete his entire life. He played on UB’s tennis team as an undergraduate, and became an avid hockey and basketball player in his mid-20s. After his tumor was removed, and following several months of treatment, he was told he would never be able to play hockey or basketball again.
“I had to learn how to walk again.” he says. “The cerebellum is like the balance center of your brain, so I had to adjust and re-learn a lot of different things.”
Roder, a senior UNIX system engineer with Enterprise Infrastructure Services, decided to play in the game after speaking with Lesakowski in April 2016.
“Roswell treated my father in 1990,” says Roder, who received a BA from UB in 1983. “I played to honor him, and to give back.
“The experience was incredible,” he says. “The same 40 skaters who started the game finished the game, and that’s a testament to the support we had.”
Lesakowski, a principal at TurnKey Environmental Restoration, started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. He continued to play in college, and was aware of the record for the world’s longest continuous hockey game. He notes that one of the original ideas to give back to RPCI was to break the record, which had been set in 2015 by 40 recreational hockey players in Alberta, Canada. Those players also had raised money for cancer research.
“We talked to the group in Alberta about how they did it,” Lesakowski says. “Groups have been setting and breaking this record for almost 10 years, and what we found was that each group did it differently. My engineering mind came through. We had to figure out how to most efficiently use all the players.”
The team started training eight months before the event, and even simulated what one day of the game would feel like. Between training and playing, the group collectively lost more than 500 pounds.
During the game, skaters went on the ice in non-stop shifts: A group of seven (five skaters, one substitute and a goalie) from each team would stay on the ice for four hours at a time. Players then would be off the ice for eight hours, when they could eat, ice or bandage themselves, and sleep. The schedule took a lot of getting used to, the players say.
“Physically we dealt with it. It was tougher to deal with it mentally. There were these moments of stress within the first few days. We really had to use each other — our teammates — to overcome the mental toll this took on us,” Merlo says.
More than 300 volunteers worked to successfully execute the event and exceed the fundraising expectations. “It’s a testament to the volunteers, to Amy (Lesakowski) and Sara (Schumacher), our event coordinator. Without the commitment from Amy, Sara, the players and all the volunteers, we would not have been able to pull this off,” Lesakowski says.
Merlo, who just a few years ago was told he would never play again, suggests he won’t be taking any breaks from hockey. “It was the most grueling and rewarding thing I have ever done. I miss it already,” he says. “We’re getting back on the ice this weekend.”