AHL On the Beat: Pink in the Rink

Hockey is a battle. It is a sixty-minute fight played out in 30-second shifts.  A player faces hostile opponents, unfortunate bounces, and his own fatigue every night.

On Friday night during the San Antonio Rampage’s third annual Pink in the Rink Night to support breast health awareness, the battle on the ice will instead serve as a celebration of those who have faced a much more difficult struggle in their lives.

Carm Russell faced that battle for close to a year.

The science teacher from San Antonio was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in January 2009, but has been able to call herself a survivor for nearly four years. Tuesday night she joined nearly 50 other local survivors for the annual “Survivor Skate,” where cancer survivors are given the chance to skate alongside Rampage players and be the first to break in the AT&T Center’s newly installed pink ice.

If there was ever a point in Russell’s life when her cancer slowed her down it is nearly impossible to tell when she’s on the ice. Like any other beginner, she may struggle with her balance, but it doesn’t take the smile off her face as she calls for Rampage rookie Alex Petrovic to lead her on a quick lap before stopping by the benches for a picture. For Russell, there’s no reason to fret anymore.

It was a different story back in 2009 when she first learned of her diagnosis. A science teacher, Russell was ironically covering the subject with her students at Reagan High School in San Antonio when she received the news.
“I was teaching high school and at that particular time I was teaching my students about cells,” Russell said. “There was some irony there.”

She was at stage one of breast cancer and was dealing with a 1.9-centimeter tumor in her right breast. The tumor was about two centimeters from her chest wall making it extremely difficult to initially detect.

She had been stricken by invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer among women. Luckily for Russell, after being tested she learned that her cancer could be treated with hormones, thus avoiding having to endure chemotherapy.

Certainly there were still the extremely tough days, but Russell battled through. It has been four years since there has been any sign of cancer in her body. She still takes medication, and has transferred all the fight she used to fight the cancer into the fight to increase awareness.

In doing so, she’s developed a sisterhood with fellow breast cancer survivors. At the Survivor Skate, she sees several familiar faces, and several new ones as well. Russell has never met Dawn Schaffer, but approaches her to say hello. As she puts it, she now has a new “pink sister.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Russell said. “It is a sisterhood, it’s not necessarily one you want to be in but once you’re in, you’re in, and you’ll do anything for your sisters.”

That sense of unity is the theme of Pink Week, the week leading up to the Pink in the Rink game. Beyond spreading awareness and raising money for research, Pink in the Rink always seems to exemplify the idea people are never alone in their battle against cancer.

Its stories like Russell’s that led the Rampage to found Pink in the Rink and give it the support to become the biggest game of the year for the club.

“It’s more than just dying the ice pink, wearing a pink jersey, and calling it a breast cancer awareness game,” said Ryan Snider, Senior Director of Rampage Business Operations. “This game is really about the people here in San Antonio and we want to do our part to honor the people who have fought breast cancer.”

Since the event’s beginning three years ago the Rampage have done what they can to honor survivors, both within the team and the community. The team has raised nearly $75,000 in the fight against breast cancer through donations from ticket sales and the postgame jersey auction. 

Survivors are always the first to skate the pink ice and the team even flew in the family of former Rampage defenseman Chris Summers who’s grandmother was a breast cancer survivor.

“Beyond dollars and cents, beyond wins and losses, it’s important to our organization to make a difference in the community,” Snider said. “It has been great to see the San Antonio community embrace this game and the cause behind it.”

It’s a sentiment that certainly has resonated within the community as they have shown up in record numbers to be part of the festivities. Attendance for the Rampage’s Pink in the Rink game as increased exponentially every year.

Last season, the Rampage packed over 16,000 fans into the AT&T Center for their game against the Lake Erie Monsters, marking the first time in franchise history that the Rampage sold-out the AT&T Center.

And the team is well on its way to selling out the AT&T Center for a second straight year.

A packed house and a lot of noise makes a huge difference on the ice and the players are already looking forward to hitting the ice on Friday at 7:30 p.m. to take on the Rockford IceHogs.

“It’s going to be a huge thing,” said rookie winger Quinton Howden, who will be experiencing his first Pink in the Rink game on Friday.

“Anytime you can get a sell-out crowd in a building as big as the AT&T Center, it’s a huge advantage for the home team. It’ll have us fired up.”

But Howden doesn’t lose sight of what else the game will mean that night.

“Seeing friends go through it you kind of feel like a big family,” Howden said. “Cancer is a scary thing. We’re excited to have a lot of people here because hopefully that means we can raise even more money than we did last year to help fight cancer.”

When the last skate leaves that pink ice Friday night it will be the last time anybody will see a rink at the AT&T Center for the next month. The ice will be covered and the team will hit the road to make room for the rodeo moving into the arena.

Despite that, they will leave behind the reminder that a team isn’t only found on the ice and that those still facing cancer are never alone.

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