Overtime Heroes

Sim Sunner and former Team Canada Danielle Dubé take a breather during the Longest Game 4 CF. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

Danielle Dubé knows a thing or two about what it’s like play in big hockey games.

As a goalie for Team Canada, she has helped win her country four gold medals, including a four-game home ice sweep in Richmond at the 1996 IIHF Women’s Pacific Rim Championship, and silver at the Nagano Olympics. The 35-year-old mother of two has held her own scrimmaging with NHL players and, nine years ago while playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League, she became only the third female puckstopper in history to start between the pipes for a men’s pro league game.

Her biggest game, however, was literally the most epic one to date.

Dubé is one of 40 women who hit the ice early in the morning Aug. 26 at Canlan Ice Sports Burnaby 8 Rinks attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for playing the longest continuous hockey game. Playing four-on-four on rotating four-hour shifts and divided into Team White and Team Red, the women are calling the rink home for 10 days as they battle it out during what is essentially a giant overtime minus the chance of ending it in sudden death.

The existing exhausting record of 242 hours was set by a group of men (and one woman) last February at the northern Alberta homestead of the Edmonton Oilers’ inhouse optometrist, Brent Saik. Not only do these woman want to beat the men, they are hoping to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis (CF) while they are at it.

“If not the biggest game, it’ll certainly be the longest and the most memorable for sure,” says Dubé as she prepared for the time spent either inside the rink or asleep in one of several cramped campers housing the players in the rink’s parking lot they’ve dubbed RV World. “Unlike some of the girls here, I don’t have personal experience with CF, but the opportunity came up and hockey has given me a lot. I’ve travelled the world and done all sorts of stuff, and this was just an amazing chance to give something back. As a mother, I can imagine how awful it is for children and it’s a great cause to be able to play for.”

CF is the most common and deadliest genetic disease affecting Canadian children and young adults. Suffering with CF is commonly described as like drowning on the inside and most don’t make it past the age of 30. A degenerative disease that destroys the lungs and digestive system, it requires multiple daily medications and physical therapy.

The Longest Game 4 CF is the brainchild of Vallerie Skelly, a 43-year-old sales manager for a Ford dealership in Richmond who also plays centre for the Thunder A in the local Duffers Hockey League. Raising funds and awareness to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis seems to be something that’s in her own family genes-her father Bill has helped raise about $50 million through decades of work with the Kinsmen Club of Canada.

Her own first experience with the disorder came as a teenager working at a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation summer camp, and it profoundly changed her life. “I met a girl there named Lucia and she was about 18 years old,” says the Team White captain moments before the ceremonial puck drop. “We became very good friends. She unfortunately died at the age of 27 of CF. I told her I was going to do something big some day and this is what I came up with.”

Val Skelly screening Danielle Dubé. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

Skelly says her friend taught her to appreciate the value of every moment and every breath, and she wanted to finally do something “truly epic” to help make CF instead stand for “cure found.” Being a good Canadian, she figured what better way to garner attention towards a little understood respiratory disease than through a lung-busting hockey marathon. She got in touch with the parents of Eva Markvoort, a vibrant young woman who recently passed away from CF and who has become the pretty face of an ugly disease.

Ironically, the stunning beauty whose image adorns the Longest Game 4 CF campaign posters and other promotional material was never much of a hockey fan.

“She wasn’t what you’d call much of a sports person,” says her mother, Janet Brine, while watching the game with her husband Bill and daughter Annie. “We tried to get her involved in sports really early because it was really good for her physically, but it just wasn’t her thing. She was really much more interested in the arts.”

Markvoort, a former Miss New Westminster and theatre major at the University of Victoria, was instead passionate about acting. Frustrated that she wasn’t landing many roles due to the fact many directors had concerns about casting someone whose health issues could potentially pose problems (a coughing fit, for example, in the middle of a monologue), she ended up starring in the story of her own life and, sadly, her own death.

The locally shot documentary 65_RedRoses follows her struggles as she desperately waits for a double lung transplant. The film, co-directed by her friends Nimisha Mukerji and Philip Lyall, became a hit on the international film festival circuit.

But while the film exposed her to a worldwide audience, many more people got to know her further through her highly personal blog of the same name. (The term “65 roses” is common shorthand in CF circles because of a child’s famous mispronunciation of the disease, and Markvoort, a romantic who frequently dyed her hair bright red, picked 65_RedRoses to be her online handle.) As a seeming added cruelty, CF patients aren’t allowed to spend time together for fear of sharing infections, and so Markvoort turned to the Internet for distraction and comfort, where she formed many close relationships with other young people living with the condition.

Her LiveJournal page also became an unexpected hit, with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe visiting the site to share her fearless descriptions of a life spent coping with the disease.

In the end, it was through a video posting on her website where, surrounded by family and loved ones, Markvoort announced she would soon be dying after her body rejected her new lungs two years after receiving them. A few days later, in February 2010, she passed away at the age of just 25.

Her family manages to draw a bit of solace that her memory lives on through a variety of fundraising and organ donation awareness campaigns.

“For a young person, she was very conscious about wanting to leave a stamp and have her life not be forgotten,” says Brine. “We miss her every single day, but this really is pretty amazing. Here we are today and she’s still a huge part of trying to put an end to CF. It’s just wonderful.”

It’s almost impossible to have had a glimpse into Eva Markvoort’s too short life and not be moved by it. Fortunately, plenty of people are also moved into action.

Sim Sunner, for example, decided to swap her figure skates for hockey skates when she heard about plans for the game. “I transitioned just over a year ago, so you might see the occasional twirl or some of the old Mighty Ducks moves from me out there,” she says with a laugh.

Sunner was fresh out of nursing school when she began working at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, the largest CF care facility in North America. Being around the same age as most of the patients there, she inevitably became friends with many of them.

“I’ve seen them suffer, I’ve seen the pager that is always next to them and I’ve prayed with them for it to go off because that means they can get a lung transplant,” says Sunner, who now works in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital. “I knew everything about their lives, they knew everything about mine, and they would be there sometimes for months at a time. It was very difficult when one of them would pass away, just like it would be for any young person whose friends would die. They are the reason I’m doing this.”

By Day 5, the game was already pretty much out of hand, with Team White leading Team Red 491 to 326 when the Courier checked in. (Although some would say the 165-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey.) The original plan was to have Dubé in net to make up for less experienced players on Team Red like Sunner, but she had surgery on one of her fingers two days before the game and was unable to continue in net because of the pain. “She just wasn’t able to stop herself from going after the puck with one hand,” says volunteer and longtime hockey fan Desneige Meyers. “The score is pretty ridiculous right now, but then again the score isn’t what’s important here.”

What is important to Meyers is finding a cure for her two-year-old son, Beckett. A professional artist, Meyers has created a heartbreakingly large sculpture on display upstairs at the rink that incorporates all the syringes, plungers and empty pill containers that have kept her young son alive. She has already lost one child, her second, from complications due to prenatal testing to see if the baby girl had her brother’s illness.

“She passed away the day she was born and since then my marriage fell apart as well,” says Meyers. “I’m sure we’re not the only people who have those kinds of stories, but we are willing to share them if it will help find a cure.”

Artist Desneige Meyers displays one year’s worth of her son Beckett’s medication. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

Despite his frailty, Beckett is pulling his own weight around the rink by helping keep the players motivated.

“We’re having a few players who are starting to get a little bit down, particularly on the Red team,” says Meyers. “We stopped by the dressing room as they were icing their wounds and taping their blisters and looking exhausted. As soon as he walked in, everybody just lit up. He was running around giving them high fives and it seemed to perk them up-they went right out again and scored three goals. We also spent a little time on the bench yesterday and the girls were always really excited when they’d come off their shifts to hang out with him. He’s a big cheerleader, Beckett is.”

The weary women of the Longest Game 4 CF expect to finally put down their sticks Sept. 5 at 11: 05 a.m., which would beat the record by precisely, and appropriately, 65 minutes.

Financial donations to the cause can be made at the rink itself or online at longestgame4cf.com, while more drastic but equally important donations can be arranged at transplant.bc.ca. A lot of people will probably breathe much easier if you do.

(This story was first published Sept. 3, 2011. © Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier)

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3 thoughts on “Overtime Heroes

  1. What a wonderful story. Awesome to think a hockey world record was made by women instead of men. And for such a great cause!

    Like

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