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11 Day Power Play is ‘a testament to Buffalo’ and its support of cancer research

Tom Brackenridge crashed into the side of HarborCenter’s ice rink on Friday morning, carefully walked to the bench in his skates, and put his face into a brown towel.

He was tired, and trying to catch his breath, but also thrilled.

“It’s amazing,” said Brackenridge, a testicular cancer survivor.

Brackenridge is just one of more than 1,000 Buffalo residents participating in this year’s 11 Day Power Play.

Forty players hit the ice in 2017 for the first record-breaking endeavor, a nonstop series of hockey matches organized to raise money in support of cancer research. But dozens of club and ragtag teams, including Brackenridge’s Lizards squad, will rotate in and out of HarborCenter this year for a grueling itinerary that’s set to conclude July 15. The event kicked off Thursday night.

“It’s a testament to Buffalo,” said Amy Lesakowski, one of the event’s founders, on Friday. “Coming together.”

As of noon Friday, 11 Day Power Play organizers had already raised a little over $1 million.

Michael Lesakowski Jr., Amy’s husband, said about 1,500 people are participating in the second annual event. Groups of players will work four-hour shifts, he said.

Amy Lesakowski had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her husband's s mother, Evelyn, died of brain cancer in 2016.

“To do what you love, and be able to put it toward something great … I mean I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Brackenridge, of Lancaster.

Taking care of his twins in 2017, Brackenridge couldn’t play during the Lesakowskis’ first fundraiser. This year, though, beneath a set of speakers blasting AC/DC and surrounded by a small group of supporters, Brackenridge was there with others, skating in wide, parabolic arcs.

So was Andrew Case of Buffalo. His father died of Hodgkin's lymphoma, and his stepfather died of mesothelioma.

“You don’t want other families to go through this, so you just do what you can to fight the disease,” said Case, standing near one of the venue’s locker rooms, dripping with sweat. “Hopefully other families don’t lose loved ones, and parents.

“This event, like last year’s … even though you feel like, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can do it again,’ when you think about it, wait a minute, ‘This isn’t as hard as people fighting for their lives.’ … It gives us energy, it gives them energy, to know that people are in their corner.”

Case, helping the Lizards on Friday, said Buffalo’s hockey community is close. It’s a hockey town, after all – and the 11 Day Power Play brings a lot of groups together, he said. And generations.

Just ask Matt Rusk of Amherst, on the ice Friday as his father, George, looked on. Rusk’s dad was diagnosed with a form of urologic cancer in 2017, he said.

“He’s doing great,” said Rusk, smiling.

Rusk, playing for the Wolfpack group, said many of his teammates have skated alongside each other for years. This isn’t exclusive to the 11 Day Power Play, he said.

But many of their families are affected, in some way, by cancer, Rusk said.

Heading to the locker room with the Wolfpack leading Brackenridge’s Lizards 13-5, Rusk said he wasn’t able to attend the first 11 Day Power Play. He couldn’t get out of work.

This year, he’s glad organizers opened the event up to more teams, with four-hour shifts. It’s more manageable, Rusk said.

Standing near the rink, as a Zamboni slid across the ice Friday morning, the Lesakowskis looked tired. Michael clutched a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee. But they were excited by the 11 Day Power Play’s start.

“In our city, everybody seems to want to be part of it,” Amy said.

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