The list of finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award was announced a couple of days ago. One of the names of the 12 college hockey players on it is Yale’s Aleca Hughes, to the surprise of absolutely no one, and, not surprisingly, to the chagrin of Aleca Hughes.
“I’m definitely honored,” said the junior winger, and Yale’s top goal-getter (with 10). “But it’s just weird, being singled out, I guess.”
That much there tells you a lot about Hughesm, but it doesn’t tell you much about the deeds that earned her the recognition.
However “Bulldog Buddies,” “Be The Match,” and “White Out for Mandi,” efforts into which Hughes has poured endless quantities of time, sweat, and tears, all speak volumes about what makes the heart of this Westwood, Mass. native tick.
It beats in rhythm with the heart of her friend and teammate, Mandi Schwartz, who is receiving palliative chemotherapy in what is a most critical phase of her two-year battle with leukemia.
“She’s affected me in so many different ways,” said Hughes. “A lot of who I am today is attributed to her, (and all) she’s taught me, either directly or indirectly. She’s an incredibly passionate hockey player and an incredibly kind person. She’s so selfless.”
Two years younger than Schwartz, Hughes witnessed her triumphant return to the team a year ago when her cancer went into remission and her somber departure from New Haven to her home in Saskatchewan, and then on to Seattle, to seek more treatment when the disease returned more aggressively than ever.
“I’ll never forget,” said Hughes, “when she left the second time, we were all crying and emotional. And she was the one with the smile on her face, (saying) ‘don’t worry about me. I’ll be back again.’ She was the rock. She was the solid one.'”
It turns out that Hughes, who stands a sturdy 5-foot-10, is made of some pretty rugged stuff too. Fueled by devotion to her stricken linemate, her Bulldog determination, and her Christian faith, Hughes has poured all she has into making life better for Schwartz and her family.
“That encouraged me to try in my smallest and humblest of ways,” Hughes said, “to give back to other people. It’s just always in the front of my mind. Ways to give back, or to help other people. She has helped me so much as a person, I guess.”
As it turned out, many other Mandi’s and many other families will be helped, too. Here’s a for instance for you (and we’re just scraping the top of the iceberg, here).
At the instigation of Hughes and her teammates, nearly 2,000 potential bone marrow donors have been added to the National “Be A Match” Registry. The cruel irony there is that a marrow match was never found for Schwartz, although other patients have already been paired up with critically needed donors.
Hughes also spearheaded a stem cell blood donation drive, which ultimately did prove useful in Schwartz’s treatment.
“It’s just something that I wanted to do,” Hughes said. “I wanted to help, I wanted to do something. It’s just a matter of taking initiative. I guess that’s another thing I’ve learned. There are so many different things that I’ve gotten myself involved with. Yale is such a great place, and we’re so thankful to be here. We’re looking for a way to give back. So many people were willing to help. It was a matter of getting organized.”
When one is immersed in such an endeavor, it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose.
Not so with Hughes, whose stall in the Bulldog locker room is right next to Schwartz’s, which has been maintained, No. 17 sweater and all. She says Schwartz’s presence is felt in a strong way by all the Bulldogs, through every shift and every practice.
“Mandi’s legacy has affected me,” Hughes said. “It’s affected everyone that’s crossed paths with her, or read her story. And it will forever. She will forever have impacted people in profound ways. I’m just so thankful for that.”
Many can say the same about her “liney”.
NOTES: Joining Hughes as a Humanitarian Award finalist is Robert Morris defenseman Whitney Pappas. Pappas, a senior from Evergreen, Colo., has volunteered for a whole host of events and organizations, including Holy Angels Orphanage, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Skate for the Cure. She has led several initiatives such as Project Bundle which collects winter wear like coats, scarves, hats and gloves for the needy. Pappas also interned at a recreation center back home in Colorado, for which she helped raise over $17,500 in cash sponsorships and contributions.