Published July 26, 2017
UB CSEE alumni Michael Lesakowski (MS ’08) and Peter Merlo (BS ’93, MS ‘98); UB staff member Steven Roder; and their team of 40 hockey players helped raise $1.2 million for cancer research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI).
Lesakowski, his wife Amy, and several dedicated volunteers organized the 11-Day Power Play that took place between June 22 and July 3 in Buffalo.
The event broke the Guinness World Record for the longest hockey game ever. Forty players raised over $10,000 each in donations from family, friends and corporate community sponsors.
The Lesakowskis started thinking of ways to give back to RPCI in 2009, after Amy overcame breast cancer with treatment from RPCI. After Michael’s mother died in 2016, the couple “put their efforts back in earnest and started planning,” he said.
Merlo also has experience receiving treatment from RPCI.
“If Roswell Park wasn’t there, I would be dead,” said Merlo. “I had a golf-ball sized tumor between my brainstem and cerebellum. It was benign, but once Roswell found it, they removed it right away.”
Merlo has been an athlete his whole life. As an undergraduate student, he played on UB’s tennis team. In his mid-20s, Merlo became an avid hockey and basketball player. After having his tumor removed and following several months of treatment, Merlo was told that he would never be able to play hockey or basketball again.
“I had to learn how to walk again.” he said. “The cerebellum is like the balance center of your brain, so I had to adjust and relearn a lot of different things.”
Merlo and Michael Lesakowski met eight years ago when they began playing hockey together.
Lesakowski started playing when he was three-years-old, he played in college, and he knew about the record for the world’s longest hockey game. One of the original ideas to give back to RPCI, according to Lesakowski, was to break this record.
Forty recreational hockey players in Alberta, Canada set the record in 2015. These participants also raised money for cancer research. Lesakowski maintained contact with this group while planning the 11-Day Power Play.
“We talked to the group in Alberta about how they did it. Groups have been setting and breaking this record for almost 10 years, and what we found was that each group did it differently,” Lesakowski said. “My engineering mind came through. We had to figure out how to most efficiently use all the players.”
The team started training eight months before the event, and even simulated what one day of the game would feel like. Between training and playing, the group collectively lost over 500 pounds.
During the game, skaters went on the ice in non-stop shifts: a group of seven (five skaters, one substitute and a goalie) from each team would stay on the ice for four hours at a time. Players would then be off the ice for eight hours, where they could eat, ice or bandage themselves and sleep. The schedule took a lot of getting used to, according to each alumni.
“Physically we dealt with it. It was tougher to deal with it mentally. There were these moments of stress within the first few days. We really had to use each other —our teammates — to overcome the mental toll this took on us,” Merlo said.
Over 300 volunteers worked to successfully execute the event and exceed fundraising expectations. “It’s a testament to the volunteers, to Amy (Lesakowski) and Sara (Schumacher), our event coordinator. Without the commitment from Amy, Sara, the players and all the volunteers, we would not have been able to pull this off,” Lesakowski said.
Roder is a senior UNIX system engineer at the Computing Center on UB’s North Campus. He is also UB alumnus (BA ’83). After graduating in 1983, Roder worked as a graduate assistant in 1984, and later that year, he was hired into UB Computing and Information Technology (UB CIT). Roder decided to play in the game after speaking with Lesakowski in April 2016.
“Roswell treated my father in 1990. I played to honor him, and to give back. The experience was incredible. The same 40 skaters who started the game, finished the game, and that’s a testament to support we had.” he said.
Lesakowski is a principal at TurnKey Environmental Restoration, and Merlo is the principal engineer for the City of Buffalo water division. During the game, each worked on or around their professional responsibilities, and both maintained their passion for hockey.
Merlo, who just a few years ago was told he would never play again, suggested there would be no breaks from hockey. He said: “It was the most grueling and rewarding thing I have ever done. I miss it already. We’re getting back on the ice this weekend.”