by Samantha Poulos | AHL On The Beat Archive
Corban Knight was still at Incredible Pizza 45 minutes after the rest of his teammates left. He was spending time with his buddy Nicole, a spunky, well-dressed teenager who is currently in remission.
“The two times we have been together, it has been awesome,” he said. “She is such a sweet girl and is easy to talk to and has a great sense of humor.”
Knight was almost late catching the bus to Oklahoma City after the team’s last Face Off Against Kids Cancer (FOAKC) event because he was having such a good time playing air hockey with 13-year-old Nicole.
The San Antonio Rampage are in their sixth year of Face Off Against Kids Cancer, a program that matches hockey players with a “buddy” from the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. These buddies are in various stages of cancer treatment and many are in remission from leukemia. They range in ages 1 to 18 years old.
This year’s program also involved staff members from Spurs Sports and Entertainment, owners of the San Antonio Spurs (NBA), Rampage, Stars (WNBA) and Austin Spurs (NBA D-League), being paired with buddies and players as well.
“Face Off Against Kids Cancer is a great thing the Rampage and Spurs’ organization does,” defenseman Shane O’Brien said. “As players, we are lucky and blessed to play a sport and any time we can bring light into a little girl’s life that is having some trouble dealing with something as bad as cancer, it’s the least we can do.”
O’Brien has watched his buddy Victoria finish chemo and grow into an upbeat and spirited girl.
“From the day I met her to the last time I saw her, Victoria is in better spirits and she’s just a sweetheart,” he said. “Any time I see her, she brightens up my day and brings a smile to my face.”
Knight, who joined the team via a trade in January, met Nicole when players and their buddies spent an afternoon at a local San Antonio bowling alley, another FOAKC event back in January. Nicole went into remission this same month.
“It’s awesome to be a part of this program,” Knight said. “Just being around her, I mean she is going through cancer, but is still positive. She has a great outlook on everything, so it is pretty inspiring.”
Garrett Wilson spent the same night at Incredible Pizza standing at the claw machine, making sure his 5-year-old buddy Lucas did not go home empty handed.
“Lucas had a ton of fun at the arcade,” he said, “and we were able to win him a couple of dinosaurs, so he was pretty pumped about that. It was great to see a smile on his face the whole night.”
On April 4, the Silver and Black skated in special FOAKC jerseys and invited their buddies and families and staffers to enjoy one last outing at a Rampage game. For one last time this season, the buddies got to see their “friends” put on their skates, helmets and take the ice against the Adirondack Flames.
After the game, all FOAKC participants gathered at center ice for hugs and a group photo. With the season coming to an end, this would be the last official time the pairs would all be together as part of the program.
Wilson feels honored to be a part of FOAKC, having personally dealt with cancer in his family in the past.
“It’s tough,” Wilson said, “but the way Lucas battles and the way he is always smiling, it’s great to see. Whatever I go through is nothing compared to what these kids are going through.”
The Rampage get together with their buddies multiple times a season, starting with games and pizza at the Children’s Hospital in November.
“It is really important to be a part of the FOAKC program,” veteran Mark Mancari said. “Any time you can give back and especially to children battling different forms of cancer and going through so many ups and downs, it’s nice to help them forget about it for a few hours."
Mancari, a parent himself, spends time not only with his seven-year-old buddy Alanna but also with her family at FOAKC events, encouraging them and offering to help any way that he can.
“I definitely think it means more to me because I have children,” Mancari said. “Going in there for the first time and meeting everyone was a little more difficult for me because I have two young kids and there were a few kids in there that are their age, so it’s hard to swallow.”
Buddies and their staffers got to enjoy the Ugly Holiday Sweater game in box seats around Christmas time. As a surprise, every player rolled out a bicycle and helmet at the end of the game and presented it to their buddy.
The relationship the players and buddies form is irreplaceable. The entire season the team has skated with the letters AP on their helmets, celebrating the life of Andy Pardo, a FOAKC buddy who passed away last summer.
The Rampage have fought their way to the best season in franchise history. They have clinched a Calder Cup Playoff spot for the first time since 2012 and have set a new franchise record with 43 wins in a season.
“When we are out there fighting for the Calder Cup or trying to win games and you are frustrated, when you have those Face Off kids in the back of your head, you remember this is just a game and a job,” Mancari said.
While the Rampage continue to shatter records this season, their battle will never be as tough as the kids at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
“Given the situation, we encourage our buddies to try and have fun and take it a day at a time,” Mancari said. “I know that’s what we have to do. For us that’s what important to share in those days and share good days.”
“All you can say is keep fighting,” O’Brien said. “It’s a terrible disease and hopefully sooner than later there will be a cure for it. More people are beating cancer now than ever so just keep fighting. Sometimes life is not fair but you just have to keep moving forward.”