Jersey number 17 hangs in its own stall in the women’s hockey locker room and travels with the team to every away game. But there is no player 17 on the team’s current roster.
Mandi Schwartz ’11, who bore the number 17 during her nearly three-year career on the Yale women’s hockey team, passed away in April after a 27-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Today, Schwartz’s jersey number still appears in games as a sticker that every player wears on her helmet. Schwartz’s jersey is awarded each week to the team member who has best displayed her hard-working, selfless and passionate spirit in practices and in games. And the phrase “You will never walk alone” — a saying the team used when Schwartz first left campus in December 2008 to undergo cancer treatment in her home country of Canada — remains printed on the back of the locker room door.
“There’s always something, either visual or being said, to remind us of her,” team captain Aleca Hughes ’12 said.
Though few current members of the squad knew Schwartz personally, her legacy continues to define a team that is struggling to succeed competitively, but that continues to campaign in support of Schwartz and cancer patients across the United States and Canada. As the Elis take to the ice tonight against Princeton in the second-annual “White Out for Mandi” fundraising game, they will be fighting not just to secure a second conference win but also to honor Schwartz’s legacy.
DEFINED BY SCHWARTZ
Schwartz’s story has thrust the Yale women’s team into the national spotlight — grabbing the attention of media outlets such as the New York Times and ESPN, and bringing recognition to a program that has not posted a winning conference record since the 2004-’05 season and currently ranks last in the ECAC with one win and 12 losses.
“I think they’re defined by their compassion for a teammate,” Yale Athletics Director Tom Beckett said. “That’s a wonderful thing that happens on athletic teams. The bonds that are made create relationships and memories that last a lifetime and the young women on this team are wonderful teammates and they are doing what they feel they should do to honor Mandi.”
Her struggle and legacy have helped unite college hockey programs across the country, immersing Yale in the national athletic community, women’s hockey player Heather Grant ’12 said. Dartmouth and Princeton are among other college teams raising money for today’s White Out, and Hughes said she still receives letters and donations from people across the U.S. and Canada who have followed Schwartz’s story over the past few years.
Eight current hockey players interviewed said continued work on Schwartz’s behalf has helped boost team morale in an otherwise disappointing season. Caroline Murphy ’10, who captained the team during its 2009-’10 season, said Schwartz reminds the team that sports is about more than winning.
“Sports is a microcosm of life,” Murphy said. “It’s not about the season record or fighting to win games, it’s about focusing your energy fighting towards some goal.”
Carol Schwartz, Mandi’s mother, said the family is honored that the team has continued work in her daughter’s name. Those efforts culminated this fall with the creation of the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, an organization designed to support young hockey players who suffer from cancer.
“The team has put her on such a pedestal, and it’s beyond our dreams,” Carol Schwartz said.
A TEAM IN TRANSITION
Many members of the team’s current 24-person roster never met Schwartz in person: The youngest members on the squad during Schwartz’s last appearance in spring 2010 are now juniors.
Schwartz competed on Yale’s team for two full years before she was diagnosed with leukemia halfway through the 2008-’09 season. She left campus to enter treatment in December 2008, and came back to New Haven in remission during January 2010. Though Schwartz practiced with the team, she did not have the strength to play games and her cancer returned in April 2010 — forcing her to leave Ingalls Rink once again.
This April, the whole team travelled to Wilcox, Saskatchewan, for Schwartz’s funeral, though some players had only met Schwartz when she spoke with the team via video chats during her time in treatment.
“We got to meet her family, and brothers and friends,” said Paige Decker ’14, a forward on the women’s hockey team who never met Schwartz. “It was a really special ceremony and very humbling — obviously very sad, but I felt very grateful and thankful to have travelled up there and learned more about who she was. You can tell she was a very special person.”
Head coach Joakim Flygh, who joined the team in September 2010, never coached Schwartz and said he only spent a little time with her and her family.
“It was hard as a coach to come in and relate to the players who were dealing with Mandi’s situation,” Flygh said. “I tried to be as supportive as I could.”
But the team met Schwartz’s parents three weeks ago, when they came to New Haven to watch the Bulldogs take on Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Ingalls Rink, and Lynn Kennedy ’15 said the younger players have been inspired by Schwartz’s lingering impact on the team’s juniors and seniors.
All the freshmen ask about Schwartz, Hughes said, and have embraced the traditions created in her honor.
“We live and breathe her spirit and that will be a part of our program forever I think,” Hughes said. “Her legacy won’t fade with the graduating classes.”
Today, the women’s hockey team is aiming to fill Ingalls Rink with that energy as the Mandi Schwartz Foundation looks to raise donations and “White Out” the match against Princeton for Schwartz.
The team is selling specially designed white T-shirts for the game, and will waive normal admission fees in favor of donations from attendees. Beckett said he hopes the game’s spectators fill the stands, and that he feels confident that the Athletics Department can surpass its goal of bringing 1,500 fans to the match.
The White Out is one of several now-annual events, such as the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registry Drive, that the team hosts with Yale Athletics in Schwartz’s name.
“I think that’s an expression of the love that people have that knew Mandi, or knew of her battle,” Beckett said. “She was someone who you want to reach out to and do whatever you can to help in whatever way, and I think that this effort that the Yale community is undertaking is remarkable.”
Schwartz was further immortalized in the women’s hockey program last year when the Bulldog Award, given to a player who displays outstanding team spirit, was renamed in her honor.
Flygh, who serves as one of five members on the board of the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, said he hopes Schwartz’s story will always be associated with the team, and Hughes said she plans to remain involved in the foundation for the rest of her life.
Those among the 12 team members who played with Schwartz for one to two semesters said they learned important lessons about both life and sports during their time with her.
“It sounds corny, but she made us realize there is more to life than hockey,” goalie Genny Ladiges ’12 said. “Life is short and it doesn’t matter how many games we win or lose, but what we accomplish as a team.”