April 6, 2012

From NEHJ: Mandi's legacy

By Scott Sudikoff

Mandi Schwartz is a name that will always be linked to Yale University and its hockey program. Through the efforts of her friend — and Yale captain — Aleca Hughes (Westwood, Mass.), as well as coaches and teammates, Schwartz’s name will now be known nationwide. 

Mandi Schwartz lost her battle with cancer on April 3, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Yale Athletics)

On Dec. 2, Yale hosted the second annual “White Out For Mandi” during a game against Princeton. The whole evening was designed to benefit the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, a charity that Hughes founded.

The event raised more than $25,500 for cancer research from flat donations, pledges, a silent auction and T-shirt sales. Even the visiting Tigers raised $6,000 for the cause. The foundation is dedicated to raising money and educating people about acute myeloid leukemia, as well as to support bone-marrow registration drives and umbilical cord research.

Schwartz died last April after valiantly battling leukemia, but her story and fight helped inspire thousands of people to volunteer to become bone-marrow donors. Hughes and Schwartz were linemates for the Bulldogs for two seasons and became fantastic friends off the ice.

“When Mandi relapsed, and it became essential that she receive a bone marrow or stem-cell transplant, I became a leader in tchose efforts because of how selfless Mandi was,” Hughes said. “When she was the one in need, it was a no-brainer to take action and help find her a match.”

Hughes is able to balance running the organization, playing hockey and studying at Yale by keeping her thoughts on the way Schwartz lived her life.

“I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to study and play hockey at Yale; continuing Mandi’s legacy is just a way to give back,” Hughes explained. “I love helping others and being a part of something meaningful that transcends the ice surface.”

Hughes also has plenty of help from current and former players and members of the coaching staff in making sure Schwartz’s legacy lives on.

“This month’s ‘White Out’ event could not have happened without the hard work put in by our whole team and the support from the Yale hockey alumni and fan base,” Hughes said.

Former head coach Hilary Witt (Canton, Mass.) is one such member of the Yale hockey base who lends her efforts to the foundation. Witt saw firsthand the relationship that developed between Hughes and Schwartz.

“(Hughes) felt like she could really help and (she) put her heart and soul into helping Mandi,” said Witt, who is a now an assistant coach at Northeastern. “I think part of Aleca feels like she has to do this because, even though we couldn’t save Mandi, she can make a huge impact of saving others and helping others cope by continuing to keep Mandi’s message of hope alive.”

Witt says Hughes — who shares the scoring lead for the Bulldogs (1-14, 1-7 ECAC) with two goals and five assists for seven points — demonstrates strong character traits that can be seen on or off the ice.

“Aleca’s work ethic is the same no matter what she is doing,” Witt explained. “She is incredibly focused, passionate and determined to be the best person she can, the best student and the best athlete.”

Current Yale head coach Joakim Flygh joined the Bulldogs program in the summer of 2010. Flygh saw right away the relationship between Hughes and Schwartz and the positive impact they had on each other. 

Yale captain Aleca Hughes started the Mandi Schwartz Foundation last fall. (David Silverman/DSPics.com)

“Knowing Aleca and how competitive she is, she certainly admired Mandi in how she approached hockey,” Flygh said. “Once she got sick, Mandi never focused on herself; she continued to be a selfless teammate and support the players at Yale in whatever way she could.”

Former Yale associate head coach Harry Rosenholtz recruited both Hughes and Schwartz to the Bulldogs program and is currently on the board of the foundation.

“Everyone (Schwartz) ever came in contact with became devoted to her,” Rosenholtz said. “She was simple, so genuine and her smile instantly put you at ease. Aleca is the perfect guardian of Mandi’s legacy because she so closely mirrors Mandi’s giving nature.”

Bray Ketchum (Greenwich, Conn.), a former teammate of Hughes and Schwartz, also sits on the board of the foundation.

“She is selfless and devoted to her teammates, friends and family,” Ketchum said about Hughes. “She is an incredible person with a big heart, just like Mandi.”

Earlier in the fall, Ketchum helped lead a group of runners at the Staten Island half-marathon to raise money in Schwartz’s memory.

“Whenever we were tired, we thought of Mandi on her bike in her hospital room striving to stay healthy and in shape,” Ketchum said. “Mandi’s legacy will live on forever, as we continue to make this world a cancer-free environment.”

For her efforts with the Mandi Schwartz Foundation in 2011, Hughes was recognized as a finalist for the Hockey Humanitarian Award. She is expected to once again receive a nomination in 2012.

In honor of Schwartz, the Bulldogs also have adopted an 11-year-old cancer patient, Gianna Cardonita, through the Yale New Haven Hospital. After the success of the most recent “White Out For Mandi,” Yale will continue to be a part of cancer awareness events in the coming months.

Hughes is in the beginning stages of organizing the next event for the foundation at a Boston Blades CWHL game in February.

“I believe her legacy will continue to inspire,” Hughes said. “She comes from a small town in Saskatchewan and a loving family that lives and breathes hockey; it’s a story we can all relate to.”

That legacy appears to be in great hands with Hughes and the members of the Mandi Schwartz Foundation. The impact already is being felt across the hockey world.

“The lasting impression the hockey world will have (of) Mandi was (as) a fighter, a friend,” Witt said, “and ultimately she was the one who was strong and she was the one that got the rest of us through our pain over her illness and passing.”

“I think we are seeing it right now; she was named one of the most inspirational hockey players to live by NHL greats,” Flygh added. “I think and hope this foundation that Aleca is creating will keep building her legacy and inspire people to do better.”

For more information on contributing to the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, visit www.mandi17.org.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Scott Sudikoff can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com