The South Carolina Stingrays have dozens of game promotions each season.
Some promotions are for worthy causes and raise thousands of dollars for local charities, while others are used simply to attract non-hockey fans to the North Charleston Coliseum. There’s the annual Teddy Bear Toss that benefits local children and the Salvation Army. And the Hockey Heroes for Epilepsy and Military Appreciation Night.
All important causes.
But Saturday’s ninth annual Pink in the Rink game — 7 p.m. at North Charleston Coliseum — has special meaning for several of the Stingrays.
For Stingrays goalie Jeff Jakaitis, defenseman Lee Moffie and team president Robbie Concannon, Saturday’s game is a reminder that breast cancer can strike anyone at any time. All three have close relatives that have battled breast cancer and won.
It’s a night when all three can celebrate a victory no matter what happens on the ice.
“I think as far as the game goes, I try and treat it just like the other 71 games we play,” said Jakaitis, whose mother Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. “But I also use it to celebrate the fact that I am very lucky to still have her here with us and that she won her battle. It gives me a chance to step back, put things into perspective, and realize what’s really important in my life.”
From the pink ice to the pink jerseys, the Stingrays have made the annual game a must-attend event for family and friends of breast cancer survivors. Ticket sales, promotional events and game jersey auctions have raised more than $187,000 over the last eight years. Last year’s game raised more than $29,000.
“Obviously, cancer affects millions of people all across the country, so it’s something that affects a lot of people,” said Concannon, whose mother Lorraine has twice battled breast cancer. “I think most of us know a mother, sister, an aunt or grandmother that has gone through this. I watched my mother go through breast cancer twice. Unfortunately, I think too many people in our community can relate to my experience. I know a lot of people circle this game on their calendar. You get a lot of people that probably don’t go to a hockey game come that out on Pink in the Rink night because they want to rally behind this event.”
Jakaitis, 31, was a senior at Lake Superior State when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the first three seasons of his college career, both of his parents routinely made the nine-hour drive from their home in Rochester, Minn., to watch him play. But in the middle of Jakaitis’ senior season, his mother, Ann, stopped going to his games.
“My dad would just tell me that my mom couldn’t get the time off of work to make the trip,” Jakaitis said.
At the end of the season, the Lakers were making a run at the conference championship and were playing at Joe Louis Arena, home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. His mother was there and after the game told Jakaitis about her illness.
“You hear the word ‘cancer’ and you panic,” Jakaitis said. “That’s why they hadn’t told me earlier because they didn’t want to upset me. When you’re a kid you think your parents walk on water and that they’re invincible, so it’s shocking to hear that they are sick. My mother is a really strong person and I knew if anyone could beat it, she could.”
During Jakaitis’ rookie season with the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno, he flew back home for his mother’s surgery. He was in the recovery room afterwards and the enormity of the situation finally hit him.
“I looked at her in that bed and I just started to cry,” Jakaitis said. “I couldn’t help myself. I was overwhelmed by everything.”
Ann battled through the operations and chemotherapy and attended the Inferno’s Pink in the Rink game in 2008 after her final treatment.
“It was a special night for everyone in our family,” Jakaitis said.
Like Jakaitis, Moffie was kept in the dark about his grandmother’s illness. It wasn’t until Selma Moffie had finished her treatment that the defenseman found out about her cancer.
“She’s such a fit lady and always the life of the party,” Moffie said. “She’s going on 80 years old and doesn’t look 60. She’s an amazing woman. She works out twice a day and is in great shape, so I learned that this is something that can hit anyone at any time.”
This year the proceeds from the event will go to Share Our Suzy, a volunteer breast cancer organization that provides financial support to families to help bridge the gap from diagnosis to remission. The money raised helps patients pay for simple everyday items like childcare, gas cards, utility bills, prosthetics, wigs and even mortgage payments.
“The cost of any cancer can be catastrophic to the family,” said Mason Ward, who serves on the board of Share Our Suzy. “There are patients that can’t afford the gas it costs to get their treatment, and that’s unacceptable. What we do is provide money that helps pay for the groceries, the child care and utility bills so the patients can just concentrate on their recovery. We’re not a research organization, there are so many great ones out there, but we do have an impact on the everyday lives of people who are affected by this illness.”