|Aleca Hughes received a hockey humanitarian award. (Yale Sports Publicity)|
Inspired by a fallen teammate
The 2012 season was a trying one for Aleca Hughes and her teammates on the Yale University women’s hockey team. The senior forward from Westwood captained a Bulldogs squad that won just one game in a 1-27-1 finish.
The depths of losing, punctuated by an 18-game winless streak midway through the season, were compounded by a large emotional burden, the passing of beloved teammate Mandi Schwartz, who had lost her courageous two-year battle with leukemia last April.
Yale dedicated its season to Schwartz, honoring her passion for hockey, and her love of life.
Hughes stepped forward on, and off the ice, establishing the Mandi Schwartz Foundation last fall, and the “White Out for Mandi’’ fund-raiser game at Ingalls Rink in New Haven. The first two games have raised more than $50,000.
She and her teammates also held three highly successful bone marrow donor drives that added more than 2,500 names to the National Marrow Donor Program registry. Those additional names led to at least six genetic matches who donated to patients with life-threatening illnesses.
Last Friday night in Tampa, at the site of the NCAA Frozen Four, Hughes received the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented annually to a male or female college player in Division 1 or Division 3 who “most personifies true community spirit through the selfless commitment of leadership, effort, and time.’’ She was also a finalist last season.
“Mandi’s passion for life and her skill as a hockey player inspired me,’’ said Hughes, who will graduate this spring with a degree in American studies. Schwartz’s parents, Rick and Carol, made the trip to Florida from their home in Saskatchewan for the presentation.
“We had a rocky season with a lot of ups and downs, and it really taught me what it means to be resilient.,’’ Hughes said. “Mandi was a role model, and her passing motivated me and a lot of other people to take action and make a difference in the lives of others.’’
Arriving at Yale in 2008 after a storied athletic career at the Hotchkiss School, Hughes was paired on a line with Schwartz, then a junior.
The freshman, 5-foot-10-inch forward responded with seven goals and nine assists. Schwartz, however, left school in December when she was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Shortly after Schwartz was diagnosed, Hughes began to raise awareness of the value of bone marrow and umbilical cord blood donations, reaching out to expectant mothers and hospitals. The first bone marrow drive was held in 2009, and this year’s event is April 19 on campus.
In addition, Hughes organized volunteers to call the regions in North America with the highest percentage of Eastern European populations in search of a marrow match for Schwartz.
After a cord blood donation match was found for Schwartz, she returned to practice with the team in January 2010. In April, Schwartz suffered a relapse, a crushing blow to Hughes and her teammates.
“They say there is a 100-day window in which your body fully accepts the marrow transplant, and from there your chances of survival are very high,’’ said Hughes. “On the 86th day Mandi relapsed. It was devastating.’’
When Yale coach Joakim Flygh gathered the Bulldogs for practice that morning, he was unaware of the news, but he sensed a problem early and halted the workout.
“My assistant whispered the news to me about Mandi, and I asked the girls if they wanted to continue,’’ said Flygh. “Their response was that Mandi would want to keep practicing.’’
“I remember that day very clearly,’’ said Hughes, who played in all 116 games of her career and finished with 30 goals and 31 assists. “It’s what Mandi would have wanted. She was such a hard working person, always the first one to practice and the last to leave. She set such a great example when I came in as a freshman. She was someone I really wanted to emulate.’’
When it became evident that Schwartz’s life was slipping away, Hughes told Schwartz about her desire to form a foundation in her name. Although she hesitated initially, Schwartz recognized that publicizing her story could help others with her illness.
Thus, the Mandi Schwartz Foundation was formed with the goal of offering support to youth hockey players with life-threatening illnesses.
“The fact that her teammates wanted to do this in her name is tremendous,’’ said Carol Schwartz, shortly before the ceremony. “Mandi’s legacy will be to raise awareness and give people hope.
“The girls reward might not have been on the ice this year, but the great work they have done in honor of a teammate certainly has gained them recognition as being a special team. They have made a great humanitarian gesture and will always be remembered for that.’’
Hughes is also her team’s representative for the Yale Athletics Community Outreach Program, is one of five finalists for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, won the ECAC and Hockey East’s Sarah Devens Award, and has volunteered as a coach with Yale Youth Hockey.
“Skating with those little kids is probably my favorite part of each week,’’ said Hughes.
Her commitment to honoring her fallen teammate, however, will remain a lifelong mission.
“Aleca is very competitive and we might not have won all the games that she wanted to win, but she’s done some incredible things to help a lot of people,’’ said Flygh.
“What she has accomplished will have a deep, deep impact on many people for a long time to come. That’s something she should be very proud of,’’ he added.
John R. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.