This month, 40 people will attempt to play hockey in downtown Buffalo for 11 straight days, raising money to fight cancer as part of the fifth edition of the 11-Day Power Play.
Not surprisingly, three of those literally living in the rink will be “Men for Others.”
Three Canisius High School graduates will be on the ice for up to 10 hours a day, around the clock, from start to finish (Nov. 14-24): Peter Merlo ’88 and Michael Meade ’87 will play while Mark Paradowski ’99 will be one of three officials skating regular shifts, just like the players. When they’re not part of the game, they’ll be sleeping on temporary beds a few steps from the rink at Buffalo Riverworks.
“If there's one phrase that you can take out of the school that would resonate when you're 14, and today, regardless when you graduated, it is ‘Men for Others,’” said Meade, the CEO of Sullivan’s Brewing Company.
“So to get the opportunity to do this, it's not even hard to think about it,” Meade said during the hockey trio’s visit to CHS last week. “You don't have to wrestle with – should I put myself on the line for 11 days to try to help people that have had very, very difficult things happen to them.”
The 11-Day Power Play was founded in 2016, co-founded by Amy Lesakowski and her husband, Mike. It was eight years after Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer and the same year Mike’s mother, Evelyn, died of lung cancer. In 2017, two teams of 20 men, including cancer survivor Merlo (as well as classmate Mike Lawley ’88), set a world record for the longest hockey game by playing, eating and sleeping at Buffalo’s HarborCenter.
“It was amazing,” said Merlo, Principal Engineer for the City of Buffalo Division of Water. “The camaraderie, the energy, it summed up all what Buffalo was meant to be.”
The event has had different incarnations in ensuing years, going to a “Community Shift” format which invited teams to take turns on the ice, all while raising millions of dollars. The event even weathered the pandemic by shifting its format to smaller floor hockey events.
The fundraising goal of this year’s event is $2 million (as it begins there is less than $300,000 to go), which would bring the total raised by the 11-Day Power Play to more than $7 million. This year’s beneficiaries include Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center – which caught Amy Lesakowski’s breast cancer (she has been cancer-free since) – as well as Camp Good Days, Make-A-Wish and Oishei Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program. (In another Canisius connection, the Lesakowskis’ son, Liam, attended CHS for two years before transferring to Salisbury Prep, being drafted into the United States Hockey League, and recently committing to play hockey at UMaine.)
This year at Buffalo Riverworks, organizers are taking full advantage of the two side-by-side rinks that overlook the Buffalo River. On one rink, you can root on the marathon players (including three women this year) who are dubbed the #Frozen40 as they try to regain the world record that was since broken by a Canadian team. On the other, you can see 40 different Community Shift teams cycle through.
One of those teams is called the “Crusaders.”
When the Community Shift began in 2018, Paradowski called around to classmates to see if there would be interest from guys who have played pond hockey as the “Crusaders” for more than a decade.
“I was hoping I could get 10 or 15 guys … and, you know, two or three times that say yes, and I had to tell people no because we can't fit them all,” said Paradowski, an IT specialist for Fluent Energy. “Because that's just Canisius guys.”
Paradowski has captained the “Crusaders” in each year of the 11-Day Power Play, with the team raising a total of more than $81,000. He’ll captain the team again this year, trading his officials’ gear for a jersey as he hops back and forth from rink to rink.
“It was an easy call, every single one of them jumped on,” Paradowski said. “Lots of these guys do all sorts of fundraisers or volunteer work. We're always looking for something like that to get into. This is a perfect connection of Canisius guys, hockey and volunteering for others.”
Even one of the chief storytellers of the event is connected to 1180 Delaware Ave. Uplifter Video, which lives up to its name with poignant profile videos on each player, was co-created by Jason Holler ’99.
The video on Merlo, a 51-year-old who lives in the Elmwood Village, includes him saying, “Roswell saved my life.” Merlo was told he had a brain tumor, and he would never play hockey again. He worried about his kids. Today, Merlo’s son, Patrick ’22, is a senior at Canisius.
Meade’s story involves the loss of his brother, Jim Jr., who was born with muscular dystrophy before dying from lung cancer at 54. Meade, 52, who lives primarily in New York City but is restoring a Delaware Ave. row house as well, is also skating for his Dad, Jim Sr., who survived biliary cancer in his late 60s.
“My dad is 86 and he'll be there” at the games, Meade said. “He was convinced he would be dead when he was 55 because his mom, his dad and brother all died in their 50s of various forms of cancer.”
Paradowski, who lives in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park neighborhood, has had several family members affected by cancer.
The 39-year-old has also seen how support and the 11-Day Power Play can work in the other direction.
Paradowski’s wife, Christina, who actually found out about the initial 11-Day Power Play before he did, has volunteered for multiple shifts per day each year. In March 2020, she was pregnant with triplets when they arrived four months early. Two of the children did not survive; daughter Larkin spent more than four months in the hospital before coming home.
The Paradowskis shared their story in an 11-Day Power Play video by Uplifter, which included a pandemic wedding on Mark’s parents’ lawn where Mark and Christina wore 11-Day Power Play jerseys. Why those jerseys? Christina says in the video: ““I just said, ‘what do we have that means something to us?’”
“The Power Play was huge for us in letting us tell our story … the kids, and the Power Play and everything,” Mark said. “It meant so much to us – because of Covid, it was the first time we got to tell anybody the story.”
During the Power Play, players not only participate in the games, they are also fundraisers. Paradowski’s “Crusaders,” featuring 30 different people raising funds, surpassed their team goal of $20,000 a week before the event, putting them among the top 10 fundraising teams.
Among the #Frozen40, Meade had raised the most money entering this weekend at about $87,000.
How did he do it?
He says that answer also brings him right back to 1180 Delaware Ave.
“A lot of the money I've been able to raise is from people at my Canisius High School lunch table – whether it's them as individuals or businesses they own – and guys I rowed with at Canisius,” said Meade, who was on the CHS crew team for four years. “It’s all about my lunch table and the boats I rowed.”
Meade said the donations from those classmates aren't driven so much by their connection to him, but by the connection to their alma mater and the Jesuit principles it instilled in them.
“I just think that from the day you get here, there's an aura here of adopting self-respect, first, and creating the ability to respect others,” Meade said. “And it's dripping from the walls here. And that's phenomenal.”
Said Paradowski: “You maybe don't even notice it at 15 or 18. But then, you know, when work has a Habitat for Humanity day, you just sign up and you just do it. And then somebody is running a fundraiser, or you just go do a Ride for Roswell. Or you're helping with preservation work and stabilizing people’s houses, or people have a fire and you just go help.
“Then all of a sudden you realize, oh yeah, that's kind of what this place is always about.”
“I see it in my son, and we’ll always say ‘Men for Others,’” said Merlo. “It's nice to see that continue for me and see the same lessons being taught. I loved the school when I graduated, and I love the school now.”
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The “Crusaders” of the 11-Day Power Play Community Shift
CHS grads on 2021 team
Ray Hafezi ’96,
Mark Paradowski ’99
Chris Brectel ’99
Alex Bielecki ’99
Tim Marren '99
Sam Russo ’01
Charlie Castro ’04
CHS grads on previous 11DPP Community Shift teams
Chris Revekant ’99
Jeff Malchoff ’99
Andrew Nason ’99
David Bordieri ’99
Joe Cutolo ’99
Sean Ryan ’00