Binghamton players striding for a cure

by Danielle Catalano || AHL On The Beat Archive

hamel-carkner_200.jpgSix years ago while playing for the Cleveland Barons, Matt Carkner decided it was time to grow out his auburn hair. The 6-foot-4 defenseman was steadfast in this decision, shunning all shearing tools and barbershops along Lake Erie’s coastline while his crimped mane redefined the laws of gravity.

Two years later, looking like a very tall cross between Carrot Top and Mike Commodore, Carkner amended his ban against haircuts.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, I gotta cut my hair’,” the Winchester, Ont., native says with his arms outstretched to their near-maximum wingspan above his head. “So I decided, ‘You know, I might as well do it for a cause.’”

Thus began Carkner’s venture into fundraising for cancer victims and survivors. The defenseman devised a fundraiser where fans could purchase tickets to enter a drawing for a chance to shave his head on center ice at the end of the season, with all proceeds donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Northern Ohio.

The event was a modest success, Carkner says, which only became motivation to improve the fundraiser the following season.

Little did he know just how personal that motivation would become less than 24 months later, when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Now playing for the Binghamton Senators with a more reserved hairstyle, Carkner has tweaked the fundraiser and partnered with teammate Denis Hamel to raise money for the southern New York chapter of the American Cancer Society through their “Making Strides Against Cancer” raffle.

The raffle generated $10,000 for the local chapter last season, and this year, the duo hopes to raise just as much money by April 4, when the club hosts its Fourth Annual Face-Off Against Cancer night at the Broome Country Veterans Memorial Arena.

Between stops in Cleveland and Binghamton, Carkner played the 2006-07 hockey season in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for the Penguins, and it was during this time that his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“She had a big battle then, and she’s still battling it now,” he says.

With this special incentive spurring his creativity, the fundraiser transformed into a club-wide promotion that involved not only fans buying chances to shave the defenseman’s hair (which was grown out again in a milder fashion), but stick sales, a jersey auction and drawings for sponsored prizes. When the festivities ended, more than $8,000 was donated to charity.

Upon arriving in Binghamton last season, Carkner discussed his non-profit work with the Senators staff and team captain Denis Hamel, who has two cousins also fighting breast cancer.

“It’s in my family a lot, so it’s really in my heart,” Hamel says. “I want to do something for (my cousins), to help them become survivors and raise money to find a cure. And I’m sure it’s just not in my family. It’s on everybody’s mind. Everybody knows at least somebody who has cancer. If it’s not in your family, it’s a friend’s family, or maybe someone in your city. When Matt came up with the idea, I just jumped right in.”

A short while later, with assistance from the organization, the local ACS chapter, season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and local businesses, the cancer fundraiser morphed into the “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” raffle.

Matt Carkner shaved his head for the cause while with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2007.

The raffle drive entails selling 500 tickets at $50 a piece for a chance to win one of 10 prizes. Tickets will be drawn following the team’s second-to-last home game, and fans will have an opportunity to bid on player-worn, breast-cancer-awareness-themed jerseys.

“Denis came up with the idea of selling the raffle tickets,” Carkner says, “so that way it guarantees us money to give to the American Cancer Society and gives fans good odds of winning a prize.”

This year, winnings include $15,000 worth of cash prizes, a 40-inch flat screen television, a laptop computer, tickets to a 2009-10 Ottawa Senators game as well as a B-Sens Skybox Night next season, a year membership to a local gym, baskets filled with sports memorabilia and dinner with both players.

The teammates credit the volunteers and organization’s staff for their resources in getting gifts donated to the Making Strides campaign.

“People really care about cancer and want to help us raise money,” Hamel notes of these efforts. “The more money we raise, the more chances we have to find a cure. The more people we have around us, the more they want to help us. We’re just thankful for their support.”

Since some of the money raised through tickets sales will supplement the cash prizes, a concern of the fundraiser’s success is the economy’s impact on the community.

“I know it’s a lot of money to ask, but the $50 can save a life sometimes,” Hamel says.

To allay concerns and maximize sales, the local ACS chapter is promoting the raffle in its literature and volunteers have been doing the footwork, Carkner says, by selling tickets at the arena during the B-Sens’ home games. The teammates are also walking the beat during their downtime, promoting the raffle through the media, making special event appearances and talking to just about anyone in the Southern Tier about Making Strides.

“For a great cause like this, you always find time,” Hamel says. “I know sometimes with our schedule it gets busy — we have three games in four nights; this week we have four games in five nights — but we still got Tuesday and Thursday open, and with practice in the morning, we have time in the afternoon. So, we try to do what we can.”

And so are area businesses, which have offered their facilities to attract a wider audience to the cause. In some instances, the effort is to boost ticket sales. The Johnson City plant of electronics manufacturer BAE Systems not only donated the 40-inch television being raffled, but the company set up a booth in its cafeteria recently for the players to sell tickets. (Fifty-three were sold in two hours.) In other instances, facilities are hosting smaller community events that will benefit the Making Strides campaign, such as Bowling with the B-Sens next month at Laurel Bowl.

“Thankfully, everyone we’ve talked to has been supportive of us,” Hamel says. “At the gym, they put up a poster to try to sell tickets for us. They didn’t have to do that — they’re already sponsoring a prize in the raffle. We have a lot of support here, and it’s nice to see that in a community.”

With kindred spirits like these, the teammates foresee Making Strides Against Breast Cancer making a significant impact on the lives of southern New Yorkers afflicted with cancer for quite some time.

“We basically have the foundation built on this,” Carkner says. “Hopefully, fans will keep supporting it for years to come.”