In the sport of hockey, it’s always been all about the battles.
Battles for the puck, battles on the half boards, and battles fist-to-fist. But those battles, however physically exhausting and mentally draining, pale in comparison to the battles the women in the pink T-shirts have been fighting for days, months, and -- for most of them -- years.
Spread out across the ice at the AT&T Center, the home of the San Antonio Rampage, were clusters of women and their families, skating hand-in-hand, or being helped along by a player much bigger than they.
For the Rampage’s fourth annual Survivor Skate, local breast cancer survivors and their families were welcomed to christen the newly dyed pink ice as it was unveiled on Tuesday night.
“I christened it with my bottom,” said Paula Lindsey with a laugh. “We spend most of our time in doctors’ offices and hospitals, so to come out of that and to skate and celebrate life and laugh... I said, ‘I survived cancer, so I can skate!’”
Lindsey was diagnosed just under a year ago, but has been a part of the breast cancer awareness campaign for years. Having had close friends and family members suffer from the disease, she has come to Pink in the Rink games, but this is her first Survivor Skate.
The Rampage’s Pink in the Rink Week features a different pink-themed event each day of the week, all building up to the annual Pink in the Rink game, which falls on Friday, Jan. 31 this year -- a 7:30 p.m. puck drop with the Toronto Marlies.
“Two years ago, we came to Pink in the Rink,” said Lindsey, “and the whole thing was just so moving. I remember bawling my eyes out. You never imagine that it could be you. But I just went in as a fighter, and that’s all you can do.”
With the hundred-plus survivors and their family members staking claim on the pink ice that usually gleams a bright white under the slap shots that it is used to, it was almost hard to pick out the players from the crowd. Some were skating alongside a survivor or a survivor’s child, some were chatting along the boards animatedly, and some were simply taking it all in.
“I’ve seen firsthand what it does to families,” said Rampage defenseman Michael Caruso, whose aunt beat breast cancer six years ago. “It’s a scary thing and it’s good that we’re doing something about it. This event is a great way and another way for us to connect with fans on a deeper level than just hockey. Cancer has affected probably 80-90 percent of people that come to our games, and it’s a nice way to celebrate them.”
Cindy Matteson, an Oklahoma City native who now calls San Antonio home, is an eight-year survivor of breast cancer who has dedicated herself to raising funds and awareness to help find a cure for the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2013 alone there were an estimated 232,340 new cases of breast cancer in women diagnosed, along with 2,240 new cases diagnosed in men. In that same year, an estimated 39,620 women along with 410 men died as a result of breast cancer.
“It’s great to be recognized for the work that we do to raise awareness,” she said. “Breast cancer is just so ... I don’t even know the words to use anymore. Why can’t we find an end to this disease?”
In eight years of fundraising and participating in awareness events between here and Oklahoma City, Matteson has helped raise over $100,000 for the cure.
“We have to find an end. That’s why I’m so passionate and work so hard every day to try and raise awareness,” she said. “It’s definitely not a fun road, but I made it through it.”
Both Matteson and Lindsey agree on the positive impact that events like the Survivor Skate and the Pink in the Rink game have on survivors and their loved ones.
“It’s so fun to get out here and be around other survivors, and to just laugh,” said Lindsey. “To laugh and have a joyous moment. Friday [at the game] will be different. It will be emotional. But I’ve been proud to be in the audience as a supporter, and now here I am.”
The Rampage kicked off Pink in the Rink week on Monday, driving a pink SUV around San Antonio and surprising local survivors with gift bags handed out by the Rampage mascot, T-Bone. Tuesday marked the Survivor Skate, which featured its biggest turnout since the event started four years ago.
T-Bone was in action again on Wednesday night, serving free pink lemonade to fans at the San Antonio Spurs’ home game against the Chicago Bulls, and Thursday night was home to a happy hour at Rosario’s Restaurant y Cantina, a local restaurant famous for its “La Tuna” margarita, a pink drink served up by Rampage players to area survivors.
While breast cancer awareness initiatives are not unique to the Rampage -- rookie center Vincent Trocheck recalls dying his hair pink during his time with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers -- the Rampage stick out among the crowd.
“I think we really go above and beyond,” said Rampage captain Greg Rallo. “I’ve seen less in other places, but I certainly haven’t seen more than what we do here. It’s great to give survivors a fun night out and to let them know that we’re behind them in trying to find a cure for this terrible disease.”
Emotions ran the full spectrum. Many survivors were beaming the entire night, chatting with players and other survivors, or working on their hockey stops. There were some who gazed upon the pink ice with tears welling in their eyes. There were a few tumbles to the ice, but each one was punctuated with a smile and a Rampage player’s helping hand to guide the survivor back to their skates.
“I’ve gotten out of the denial phase, but you go through so many different stages of it,” said Lindsey. “Shock, denial, acceptance. But this is great. I can come out and I can laugh and celebrate. Just celebrate life, and we all really appreciate it.”
Battles aren’t always on the ice, but they’re won everywhere.