In his own words, Dave McGrath “really hates cancer.”
As a brain tumor survivor, McGrath, a 1996 Boston College graduate, wanted to help organize a fundraiser for the Hope Lodge in Worcester, Mass., and took a page out of the Relay For Life handbook.
The Hope Lodge is a nonprofit cancer treatment facility where McGrath works.
Last summer, the inaugural Skating For Hope event was staged at Buffone Arena in Worcester and several former BC and Boston University players took part in an alumni game as part of the 24-hour event that raised more than $14,000; McGrath’s goal over the long haul is to raise a cool million.
“In 2009, I was ice skating with a friend of mine and the idea popped into my head — skate 24 hours for Hope Lodge,” McGrath wrote in an email. “I had heard the story of Relay for Life founder Gordy Klatt and how he had walked for 24 hours at the first RFL event and I wanted to do the same — except for Hope Lodge and at a hockey rink. I asked my friend if she thought 24 hours in a row would be possible, and when she said yes, the idea became my mission.”
Still, getting the wheels in motion was rough in the early going.
“It took a lot of time and support from many different people to get Skating For Hope off the ground,” McGrath said. “I started by searching for a hockey rink that would donate a 24-hour rental for the event. Although I couldn’t find one, Buffone Arena said they could give me the rink time at half the normal price. However, that price was beyond my nonprofit paycheck, so I had to come up with a way to raise money for the rink rental.”
Then, raising the cash for the rink was a unique project that caused McGrath to sit and reflect on his life.
“At the end of 2009, a friend of mine was moving away and gave me his old MacBook, iPhone, snowboard and some other things,” McGrath said. “His act of generosity really affected me and got me to thinking about all the things I had and how they weren’t really what made me happy. I thought of my enormous T-shirt collection, and when my cousin Katie gave me a T-shirt that Christmas, she referred to my joke of wanting to have enough T-shirts so I could wear a different one for each day of the year.
“It was then that I realized how ridiculous that goal was and decided I could use my T-shirts to raise money for the Skating for Hope rink rental. With the suggestion of my sister, Megan, I started wearing a different T-shirt every day in 2010 and blogged about them at davestshirts.blogspot.com.”
Eventually, the shirts earned McGrath enough cash.
“In the summer of 2010, I realized I was going to run out of T-shirts and my family, friends, Hope Lodge guests and about 20 websites and local businesses donated T-shirts and I reached my goal of 365,” McGrath said. “In 2011, I started taking donations for these T-shirts (through a website my sister, Carolyn, set up) and had raised enough money for the rink rental by March.”
Diagnosed with cancer at 18, McGrath received his last round of chemotherapy his first weekend as a freshman at Boston College. Although his doctors had originally told him that he would need chemo followed by radiation, the last round did it and he has been cancer-free since.
“Although I had won my physical battle with cancer, my fight with cancer was far from over,” McGrath wrote. “My junior year of college, two of my friends (a 13-year old named Justin, who had cancer in his brain stem who I met in the hospital, and my friend, Danny, who graduated high school with me and was diagnosed with leukemia) passed away from cancer within six months of each other. I knew that somewhere along the way, I would have to do something to fight back.
“I went to Relay for Life events and took part in survival laps but never really got involved fighting cancer beyond that. I found the job at Hope Lodge five years ago and could see how much it helped those who were in the midst of their own battles with cancer. Guests do not have to worry about the cost of living away from home for extended periods of time and it allows them to be around other people who are going through something similar. Personally, it allows me to share my story of survival and in a way gives me a reason for my cancer. Combining my love of hockey and skating to help Hope Lodge just made perfect sense to me.”
At last year’s Skating For Hope game, former NHL referee Paul Stewart, now the director of officials for ECAC Hockey, even joined in the festivities, showing that word traveled fast in a relatively short amount of time.
“I had no idea what response I would get, but I emailed all the former BC hockey players I had connected to online, hoping at least one player would respond,” McGrath said. “Jamie O’Leary, Blake Bellefeuille and Bobby Allen immediately got back to me telling me they wanted to play and Blake contacted Carl Corazzini because he knew him from growing up in Framingham. There were a couple people on the Skating For Hope committee that had a connection to Paul Stewart, so once I knew there were BC and BU players coming, I thought it made sense to see if he was interested in reffing the game.
“I think it speaks to the willingness of some people to donate their time and share their gifts in order to help others. There were people and organizations I expected to support this event and didn’t even get back to me. Knowing these players and Paul Stewart were coming out to support Hope Lodge made me feel a lot better about the people I didn’t hear back from.”
O’Leary called the event “awesome.”
“I think it is extremely important to show support to groups like the Hope Lodge that do so much for families that are affected by cancer,” said O’Leary, a senior forward on the 1998 national runner-up BC squad. “I coach a high school team (Walpole High School in Walpole, Mass.) and make it an emphasis to help whenever you can, so this was one way for me to help out a fellow Eagle. Plus, anytime we can get a few guys together to skate, it’s a fun time.
“I think it is very important for people to know that Dave does so much to make this event happen, that anyone in the hockey community that can help it would mean a great deal. I talk to my players all the time about how hockey is not just playing on the ice, it is the community and network of people you meet that make hockey so special. If we could have the hockey community get behind this event, that would help make the Hope Lodge a place to make going through these treatments and surgeries a much easier process.”
McGrath himself skated in the game and said there was definitely a point in the proceedings where he may have had to pinch himself.
“It was really unbelievable,” McGrath beamed. “I remember skating around and seeing Bobby and Blake walking into the rink. My first thought was, ‘Holy cow, this is really happening.’ These were players that I rooted for and watched play for a national championship in 1998 (the most heartbreaking game I have ever attended in any sport), and one (Corazzini) who I rooted against with a passion. I watched Bobby Allen win a national championship in 2001, the first time in my life that one of my teams won it all. They all had played hockey professionally and you could tell any one of them could have skated around the rest of us and scored as many goals as he wanted to. No matter where I was on the ice, every pass one of them made to me hit the tape on my stick and having a former NHL ref who is also a cancer survivor calling the game made it that more surreal to me.
“Not only were we playing hockey with these unbelievably talented athletes, we were fighting cancer at the same time.”
This summer’s Skating For Hope game is slated to run 10 a.m. on July 28 to 10 a.m. on July 29. McGrath said he’s looking to add more non-hockey elements like a curling exhibition and figure skating time to create more interest from other groups. He also wants to expand to Boston and Burlington, Vt., to have 24-hour games there for those cities’ Hope Lodge facilities.
“I hope one year that Denis Leary and Cam Neely will come play,” McGrath said.
McGrath is also realistic in knowing that with the U.S. economy not very favorable at this point in time, he “has yet to find a person who is a fan of cancer.”
“People pay to ice skate and play hockey at rinks without the money going to charity and the plan with Skating for Hope is that people can still enjoy these activities while donating their money and time for a good cause,” McGrath said. “The Relay for Life event in Gardner, Mass., is projected to raise $1 million this year and I have them and Gordy Klatt as inspiration for the longevity and success of Skating for Hope.
“Cancer is something that does not discriminate based on someone’s finances, race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality or age. I think the key to ridding the world of cancer is for people to start treating each other in the same non-discriminatory ways. Until that day comes, I hope more and more people, cancer survivors and BC and BU (or any Hockey East team) hockey players will join me in the fun each year.”
How to get involved
Check out these websites:
• Skating for Hope: www.skatingforhope.myevent.com
• Donation page to sponsor Dave McGrath: www.skatingforhope.myevent.com/participant/16033
• Hope Lodge on the American Cancer Society website: www.cancer.org/Treatment/SupportProgramsServices/HopeLodge/Worcester/index
• Those wishing to donate also can make checks out to Skating for Hope and send them to:
7 Oak Street
Worcester, MA 01609