After 30 years of slacking as a sports writer, I’ve lost track of how many hockey games I’ve watched in my life but I can count on one hand exactly how many times I’ve been awestruck by what I’ve witnessed unfold out on a sheet of ice – four.
All four of those unforgettable, life-altering moments belong to the World’s Longest Hockey Game, an event that has been hosted by Dr. Brent Saik at his Sherwood Park acreage in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2011.
It’s an event that has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records on multiple occasions. More important, most important, it’s been a marathon of courage, will and compassion that has so far raised more than $2 million in funding for the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
Starting Friday at 7 a.m., Saik and his wife Jenelle, along with 38 other players, including former Oiler Janne Niinimaa, and a host of volunteers, will participate in the fifth edition of the game at Saiker’s Acres hoping to break the existing record of 248 hours and raise money toward the purchase of a PET-MR machine for the Cross Cancer Institute.
THE GAME GOES ON
Every one of the participants who’ll bundle up and take the ice Friday has been touched by cancer in one way or another. Who among us hasn’t lost a loved one – a mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife or a friend?
Saik, the team optometrist for the Edmonton Oilers and president of the Alberta Sports Institute, has more skin in the game than anybody. Brent lost his father, Terry, to colon cancer in 1994. In 2003, cancer took Brent’s wife, Susan. Brent, who started a golf tournament in 1996 and then organized the first game in 2003 in honor of his dad, has played on since.
Having lost my mom to cancer when she was just 48, I am humbled by the dedication of Saik and the participants and grateful for their efforts every time I attend the game, which will again be played non-stop for 10 days on the rink Saik has constructed on his property.
In 2008, the game started amid absolutely brutal conditions – near minus-40 temperatures. Some of the players suffered frostbite. Some had to reluctantly drop out. Others probably should have quit but didn’t, playing through the fatigue and bitter cold in shifts, grabbing some sleep when they could. The game went on. I took my son Sam, who was four at the time, to watch the clock tick down on a new record in 2011. He still remembers it.
Jason Gregor has played in this game. Global sports anchor Kevin Karius is playing again, as is TSN radio man Dustin Nielson. Finnish journalist Jouni Nieminen is one of five players participating in his fifth game. This time, Niinimaa will be here, making good on a promise he made years ago.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
If you’ve never been out to Saiker’s Acres to witness the game, I’d urge you to find your way out to Brent’s place and the wonderful facility he has built at 52269 Range Road 220 in Sherwood Park and take a look.
Saik and a host of volunteers have spent years building a 7,700 square foot facility to host participants and those who want to come out and see the event – a far cry from those early editions of the game when players bunked in his house and scores of people huddled in the kitchen for a break from the elements. There’s an area on the top floor that can hold 500 people, complete with hot chocolate and sandwiches.
Go to the World’s Longest Hockey Game to get another glimpse of Niinimaa. Go to offer encouragement to the players and volunteers who’ll eclipse the 248-hour mark at 6 p.m. February 16, which is, fittingly, Family Day. Go for those you’ve lost to this terrible disease, those who can’t be there. Show Brent and Jenelle and the rest of the participants how much you care about what they’re doing. Cheer them on.
You will never see anything like The Greatest Game of All.
You can visit the Alberta Cancer Foundation website here if you would like more information about the game and what it’s about. If you would like to make a donation to the cause, you can do that here.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.