Team Travels to Fallen Teammate's Hometown and High School
WILCOX, Sask. – It was a trip born of tragedy, but it ended in inspiration. Paying tribute to their fallen teammate Mandi Schwartz, the Yale women's ice hockey team traveled to Saskatchewan at the end of last week to be a part of the memorial service at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, Mandi's high school. While honoring Mandi, the trip also gave her teammates the chance to learn more about the people and the place that provided the foundation for some of her defining characteristics -- courage, dedication, humility and a never-ending feeling of hope.
After more than two years spent battling cancer, Mandi passed away Sunday morning Apr. 3 in Saskatchewan. Shortly after that, her Yale teammates met and committed to attend the funeral as a group. Preparations began for the journey (2,000 miles each way), and the Schwartz family learned that there would be a couple dozen additions to the memorial ceremony.
For the Bulldogs, the trip was a chance to continue the feelings of compassion and commitment that Mandi had inspired all along. As she battled, her teammates constantly found ways to express their support, ranging from leaving an open spot in the pre-game lineup for her to organizing marrow drives in an effort to find a genetic match for the stem cell transplant she needed to survive. Those annual drives, which were named in Mandi's honor shortly before she passed away, have added more than 1,600 people to the Be The Match registry and have located at least five matches for patients with life-threatening illnesses.
For the Schwartz family, Yale's visit to their home in Wilcox was a chance to say "thank you" in person.
"Throughout Mandi's battle, her Yale women's ice hockey teammates have been among her greatest supporters," said Carol Schwartz, Mandi's mother. "She was so proud of them. Our family and community were truly honored to have them make the trip from New Haven to be a part of Mandi's memorial service. We will never forget this gesture of incredible kindness by our Yale hockey family."
The Bulldogs gathered at Ingalls Rink shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday in New Haven, then boarded a bus for Newark Airport. After a layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Yale arrived in Regina, Sask., Thursday afternoon.
The difference between Saskatchewan and Connecticut was apparent immediately, as miles and miles of Canadian prairie stretched out on either side of the road while the Bulldogs' caravan of three minivans and one car drove to the team hotel in Moose Jaw, 45 miles northwest of Wilcox. That was the closest place where Yale could get a hotel room; everything near Regina was sold out because the World Curling Championship was going on.
Thursday evening provided Yale with the opportunity to visit Mandi's home in Wilcox. For the vast majority of the team it was their first trip to the town, which has a population of slightly more than 200. They were greeted at the entrance by Rick and Carol Schwartz, Mandi's parents, and shared warm embraces with each of them. Mandi's younger brothers, Jaden and Rylan, along with her fiancé, Kaylem Prefontaine, were also there along with numerous relatives and friends.
"One of the hardest moments was walking into Mandi's house for the first time," said senior goaltender Jackee Snikeris. "I couldn't even imagine the emotions the family was feeling whenever I looked at them. Outwardly they were handling everything as well as anyone could, expressed their gratefulness that we were able to make the trip many times, but I was constantly aware of what they must be feeling inside. Words just couldn't do justice in expressing how much Mandi meant to our team, although we truly tried. I am just so thankful our team was able to be a part of everything and it was no doubt a life changing experience for me."
Meeting Mandi's family provided her teammates with even further insight into what made her so special.
"Meeting the Schwartzes made me realize where Mandi got her kindness," said senior forward Lili Rudis. "They just exude warmth. I felt honored to spend time with the people who helped make Mandi who she was and took such loving care of her when she was sick."
A tour of the Schwartz house provided the Bulldogs with the chance to see years and years of hockey awards (and jerseys) that Mandi and her brothers had accumulated while playing the sport … and the exercise bike in the basement where just a week earlier Mandi, exhausted from the effects of the cancer that would take her life only three days later, still managed to get in one last workout.
After spending time with the Schwartzes and a number of other family friends and relatives, the Bulldogs made the short trip up the gravelly road from the Schwartz home to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a boarding school with an enrollment of 350. There they were greeted by Rob Palmarin, the school president; Janice Rumpel, the school's female hockey coordinator; and Ramona Vigneron, one of Mandi's former teachers. The Bulldogs got a brief tour of the athletic facilities, including the gym and the ice rink where the ceremony was to be held on Friday. In the lobby of Duncan McNeill Arena they saw the walls lined with photos and memorabilia depicting the history of hockey at Notre Dame, which has produced numerous NHL stars such as Rod Brind'amour and Vincent Lecavalier. A photo of Mandi in her Yale uniform hangs on a wall there along with photos of dozens of former Hounds who have gone on to play at higher levels.
"Visiting Wilcox and Notre Dame definitely made me see Mandi in a different way -- in a very good way," said Snikeris. "Wilcox is an unimaginably small town; an extremely close, happy and unique town. While I love my home town, I found myself very jealous of this amazing hockey town when I was walking around, seeing the legends and future legends that walked the halls of Notre Dame. The town was just so pure and I quickly understood why and where Mandi got her compassionate, unselfish and positive attitude."
The lobby of the arena also featured a special framed pink Notre Dame jersey that the team had produced as part of a fundraiser in Mandi's name for the Pink Warrior Foundation. Above the jersey was one of Mandi's favorite quotes, the Notre Dame motto "Luctor et Emergo" -- "Struggle and Emerge".
Across the ice, a sign beneath the scoreboard featured the school's other motto, "Never Lose Heart."
"Wilcox has been a legend on our team since I got to Yale -- it was always talked about as THE Canadian hockey town," said Rudis. "It was wonderful to see a place so supportive of its students and athletes. I had always associated the mottos 'Never lose heart' and 'Luctor et emergo' with Mandi as an individual. Seeing the same words written on the walls of Notre Dame and included in the multiple shrines to Notre Dame hockey players made me realize how much of Mandi's personal strength in her battle with cancer began with the culture of strength and perseverance in Wilcox."
After leaving Notre Dame the Bulldogs made another stop at the Schwartz house, this time to pay their own personal tribute to Mandi for her family. The team's four seniors -- Rudis, Snikeris, Bray Ketchum and Samantha MacLean -- each spoke about various elements of Mandi's story, ranging from what she was like as a hockey player to how she inspired them as a person. In recognition of the fact that Mandi spent much of her ordeal over the last two years far away from New Haven, the Bulldogs also thanked the Schwartzes for taking such good care of her while they were so far away.
"The first thing I wanted to tell Mandi's parents was the impact Mandi has had on my life," said Ketchum. "She taught me the most important qualities of life. Her selfless and modest attitude was inspiring and she never once gave up in this fight. She continued to smile and laugh even when she was in pain. I feel blessed to have had her as a part of my journey at Yale and I wanted to thank the Schwartz family for sharing Mandi with us. She will forever hold a special place in my heart."
After the team showed a video of highlights of Mandi on and off the ice at Yale, the Schwartzes had the chance to address the team and express their deep appreciation for all that had been done on Mandi's behalf.
Tired but exhilarated by the chance to connect with Mandi's family and friends while sharing memories of her, the Bulldogs made their way back to their hotel late Thursday night.
Friday began with Yale making the trip from Moose Jaw to Wilcox again, this time for the memorial service. The Bulldogs had a special section reserved for them at the front of the seating area, across from the section reserved for the Schwartz family. Several Yale alums, former teammates of Mandi's, had seats at the front as well. There was not enough space in the gym for the crowd of more than 1,100, so many watched the ceremony from a nearby church via a video feed.
The mourners filed in well before the ceremony began that afternoon, walking past a series of tables at the entrance to the gym that were filled with photos and mementos, including scrapbooks from Mandi's years at Yale. At the front of the display was Mandi's Yale No. 17 jersey, framed with a pair of action photos, which the team had presented to the Schwartz family just moments earlier. Beneath the framed jersey was a framed team photo of the 2010-11 Bulldogs on the ice after their final game, holding Mandi's No. 17 jersey. They were joined in the photo by Giana, the nine-year-old brain tumor survivor the team had adopted earlier in the year and introduced at the "White Out for Mandi" fundraiser game.
"Never lose heart" read the inscription on a large photo of Mandi located in the middle of the stage, where President Palmarin began the ceremony. Yale's highlight video was shown to the crowd, along with one put together by Notre Dame students. In addition to readings from the Bible and a homily by Pastor Terry Severson, the ceremony also included Prayers of the Faithful and a Meditation Hymn.
Freshman forward Patricia McGauley, who -- like Mandi -- is a Notre Dame alum from Wilcox, added a special touch to the ceremony by singing "Ave Maria".
As the ceremony progressed, the raw emotions inspired by Mandi's loss gradually began to give way to the knowledge that the last thing Mandi herself would want to see would be anyone feeling sad on her behalf.
"She would have been giving her characteristic, soft and gentle smile the entire time," said Snikeris. "I don't think she would have liked seeing the never-ending tears, but I think she would know that a lot of them were tears of joy when we saw and knew that Mandi truly lived her life to the fullest, and constantly refused to let cancer get in her way."
High above the crowd, watching the ceremony from behind a second-floor window that looked out on the gym, a young girl full of joy and enthusiasm watched the ceremony below -- in between spurts of dashing up and down the hallway and climbing all over a table. The t-shirt she had on read "Yale Hockey" with No. 17 on the back; it was one of the shirts Yale had sold as a fundraiser when Mandi was initially diagnosed.
The first testimonials came from family friend Mike Gerhardt and Notre Dame coach Eric Lockwood. Lockwood read from a letter that Mandi had sent to inspire a Notre Dame team that was struggling at the time.
"She wrote: 'I encourage you to enjoy every time that you step on the ice. Don't forget to play for the fun of the game. Every time you go for a skate is a chance to make yourself better. Do what you love most and have the time of your life.'"
Former Yale associate head coach Harry Rosenholtz and former Yale head coach Hilary Witt each had their chance to address the crowd. They recalled Mandi as the type of player that every coach would want on their team. Rosenholtz remembered following Mandi as a recruit after spotting her as a ninth grader at the Canada Games.
"She could play the game," Rosenholtz said. "She worked at it. She did all the little things that coaches look for and you knew she was going to be special. I followed her throughout her high school career ... and by the time she was in 12th grade she was dominating."
Rosenholtz was one of many family friends who had made the trip to visit the Schwartzes while they were at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for Mandi's treatment from July through December of last year. There, Rosenholtz had the chance to witness first-hand the bond between Mandi and Kaylem, who had proposed to her while she was undergoing treatment earlier last year.
"You handled Mandi as though you were carrying a dove," Rosenholtz told Kaylem admiringly. He also delivered words of comfort to Rick, Carol, Jaden and Rylan before concluding with one final message.
"Mandi, we will always love you," Rosenholtz said, "and you will always be our angel."
In addition to speaking about Mandi's character Witt also reminded everyone what a great hockey player Mandi was. Witt recalled in particular one back-handed, cross-ice saucer pass that Mandi made, tape-to-tape, as an example of the type of little things that everyone who watched No. 17 play got to see on a day-in, day-out basis.
Witt also reminded everyone of Mandi's toughness by pointing out that -- since Mandi's initial diagnosis in December of 2008 had taken place just days after Mandi played in a game for Yale (and had an assist as the Bulldogs won) -- it is safe to say that Mandi had been playing with cancer for quite some time before she finally saw her streak of 73 consecutive games played brought to an end by the disease.
"Mandi played Division I hockey with leukemia, and she was still one of the best players on the ice -- and she was definitely the hardest worker on the ice," Witt said.
"Mandi's Video", a video made by Mandi herself that depicted that last several months of her battle in pictures and in video, was then shown to the audience. It featured a series of tender moments between her and her family members, along with many visitors, during what would be the final months of her life. Like one of the earlier videos, it included the song "Don't Stop Believing" and its fitting opening, "Just a small-town girl …".
Carol Schwartz then spoke, with Rick by her side. She once again offered the family's deepest thanks to those that had been there to support them throughout Mandi's battle, growing emotional as she concluded.
"Thanks be to God," she said, "for giving us 23 years with the best girl in the world."
The ceremony in the gym ended with a Final Commendation and a Recessional. The Bulldogs donned their Yale uniforms and, along with the Notre Dame team, formed an honor guard lining the carpet out of the gym. Mandi's remains, borne in an urn, were carried out to the rink, followed by Mandi's family.
The attendees then filed into the stands in McNeill Arena, where every row in the scoreboard was filled with the number 17. The Yale and Notre Dame players headed to the locker room to put on their skates.
Mandi's brothers donned jerseys representing some of the hockey teams most directly connected to her. So did former president of Notre Dame Terry O'Malley, a three-time Canadian Olympian, who spent many an early morning out on the ice playing hockey with Mandi. Kaylem wore her Yale No.17 jersey.
The Bulldogs skated out onto the ice and lined up in numerical order facing center ice parallel to the blue line, leaving space for the urn bearing Mandi's remains to be placed in the No. 17 spot. The Notre Dame team lined up in the same fashion at the opposite end of the ice. MacLean, Yale's captain, then had the honor of receiving the urn from Mandi's family and skating over to place it in Mandi's spot for the start of "Mandi's final skate".
"Being on the ice during Mandi's final skate made it so real to me that she's actually gone," said MacLean. "Having Rick hand me her remains and tell me to take good care of her made it all hit home. That's something a father should never have to do and his pain and sadness was so obvious that I could feel it, he loved her so much. Mandi meant so much to so many people, that losing her is going to leave a void in so many people's lives."
From there, Mandi's brothers and O'Malley took turns carrying the urn in a contemplative skate around the rink. Her fiancé Kaylem, wearing her No. 17 Yale jersey, went last.
"Watching 'Pref' (Kaylem) pick up Mandi's urn from her spot in our line-up was a really powerful moment," said Rudis. "I thought it was going to be really hard to watch, but when he picked her up and took off full-speed around the ice, I couldn't help but smile. Mandi always had fun when she was on the ice and it seemed like he wanted to make sure she was having fun on her last skate."
The Bulldogs then skated behind Mandi's brothers, fiancé and O'Malley for one final lap. The Schwartz family then came to center ice and the crowd joined in singing Notre Dame's victory march.
"I will no doubt forever remember the final skate we had with Mandi," said Snikeris. "It was just so surreal and beautiful. I'll always remember the Notre Dame team across from us holding hands together, and the feel of my teammates' arms around my shoulders. I'll always remember the gentleness with which Jaden and Rylan gracefully skated their sister around the rink, and how 'Pref' couldn't help but to take it up a notch and skate faster with Mandi, knowing that was what Mandi would enjoy the most. While I was constantly thinking that absolutely no brother or loved one should have to be doing what these boys were doing at the time, there was no use asking 'why' anymore and I knew Mandi was looking down and smiling at such an amazing celebration."
Seeing a packed rink full of Mandi's supporters was just one more sign to the Bulldogs of the impact she had during her time in Wilcox.
"I was amazed by the support and love the community showed towards Mandi and her family," said Ketchum. "The celebration of Mandi's life that we were a part of on Friday was spectacular. Mandi truly was a special person and she touched many lives. I will never forget 'Mandi's final skate.' I was honored to be a part of her last moment on the ice, as it was her favorite thing in the world. Lastly, I was inspired by the strength of her family and the courage they showed throughout Mandi's entire battle."
Friday ended with a group of Mandi's closest friends and relatives heading to the nearby Wilcox Inn to spend some more time together over dinner. Mandi's fellow Bulldogs, still sporting their Yale uniforms, gathered with the people she grew up with to share stories and also to start discussing more permanent ways to honor her while helping others. Plans for the formation of a charitable organization have already begun.
While at the Wilcox Inn a number of Yale players stopped off at the Notre Dame shop to pick up souvenir t-shirts, further strengthening the bond between the two communities.
Ketchum had visited Wilcox briefly before, but the time she spent there for this ceremony provided the chance to see Mandi's hometown in a new light.
"Mandi always talked about how important her hometown was to her, and I saw it this weekend," said Ketchum. "Everyone knew Mandi and wanted to celebrate the impact she had made on their lives. She was a hero in that town and will forever carry that legacy. She poured her heart into everything she did and that was a tribute to the school and family she grew up around."
The team then returned to Moose Jaw for one more night in Saskatchewan before heading back to New Haven -- through Regina, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York -- on Saturday. The Bulldogs arrived back at Ingalls Rink at 12:30 a.m. Sunday knowing that, even with Mandi having passed away, their efforts on her behalf must continue. The team will participate in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, which will include events to honor Mandi, this weekend. The annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registry Drive at Yale takes place on Apr. 21.
A memorial for Mandi in New Haven will be held on Wednesday, Apr. 20, at 8 p.m. in Calhoun College (189 Elm Street). All are welcome.
Report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity