Class At Yale: St. Louis Blues Show Kindness, Honor Mandi

NEW HAVEN — Carol Schwartz counted in her head. Let's see. She and her husband, Rick, had been to about a dozen Yale women's hockey games over the years. They'd been to three "White Out for Mandi" nights, too.

It's a long way from Wilcox, Saskatchewan, to New Haven, 1,993 miles to be exact, but that's at least 15 times they'd walked through the doors of Ingalls Rink together. Friday was different. This was the first time their boy Jaden had come, too. And get this: He brought along an entire NHL team with him.

"This is really special," said Jaden, 21, in his second full season with the St. Louis Blues. "I've never been here before. I've got mixed feelings right now, a lot of emotions. You're excited. You're a little down at the same time. Mandi spent an awful lot of time here. It means a lot to have all the guys with me."

Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008, Mandi Schwartz returned to Yale practices in January 2010 after five rounds of chemotherapy, six bone marrow biopsies, three spinal taps, countless blood transfusions and five months in the hospital. Her return to the Ingalls ice was at once one of the great comebacks in state sports history and a precursor of one of its great sporting tragedies.

Mandi's cancer returned in April 2010. She fought it with every bit of her soul. An inspiration to everyone, Jaden calls his older sister. She underwent a stem cell transplant from donated umbilical cord blood in September of that year. In December, the cancer returned again. Mandi Schwartz, 23, died April 3, 2011.

"Walking into the rink today was very hard," Carol said. "We were greeted by both the Yale team and the Blues. It was tough preparing to come in. But it's a beautiful feeling. It's worth all the emotions."

"It has been an emotional roller coaster this time," said Rick, his eyes ringed red. "I haven't slept in three days thinking about how this day would go. We're just so honored and proud how everybody brings Mandi's name up and what she means to them. For the Blues to do this, in support of Jaden, in support of our family, to help Mandi's Foundation, we're lost for words."

In the days leading up to the event, Carol had found the proper ones: "This is a true reflection of the heart and soul of the Blues family — a family that drafted Jaden knowing full well that during the [2010] draft, Jaden's heart, mind and soul were in the midst of the greatest tragedy he would probably ever face. A family that has stood by him, supported him throughout."

The Blues are a strong team this season. They have Stanley Cup designs. A whopping 10 of their players, including Greenwich-born Kevin Shattenkirk, are headed to the Sochi Olympics to compete for six different countries. In their only New York road swing of the season, the Blues played the Devils Tuesday before Shattenkirk got the game-winner against the Rangers Thursday at Madison Square Garden. They'll play the Islanders Saturday.

Yet here they were piling off a bus on their off day, practicing at 3 p.m. in front of about 1,000 fans, signing autographs, meeting with the Yale women's players, staying for their game against Brown. Given the tight, draining hours of a season's travel, this was an uncommon display of generosity and affection by coach Ken Hitchcock and an entire major league team. Strong fiber is the term that comes to mind.

"Jaden is such a humble kid, so soft-spoken," Shattenkirk said. "He wouldn't talk about this very much, but once we found out about it, we all wanted to be here and help out any way we could. Look, it's the least we can do.

"He's a little nervous about everything. He's the focal point today. I don't know how much he loves the spotlight. But he's such a great kid. We've gotten to know his parents. They're great fans. To see them here, to share the moment with them, is special for us, too."

When Jaden, who has 16 goals and 35 points in 48 games for the Blues, saw the schedule he knew he saw the chance to attend the "White Out for Mandi." He planned on bringing a handful of teammates.

"It escalated," said Jaden, who dropped the ceremonial puck before the game. "Then Army [GM Doug Armstrong] told me one day the whole team was coming. I was shocked. It means so much to my family and me. It is cool."

"It's very cool, we are so honored," Carol said. "It was important to Jaden to meet the people who raised awareness for this, who reached out to us when we needed it, who started the Foundation. It means so much to our family. Jaden wanted to see it, to feel it.

"Jaden is still in awe the whole team is at Yale in honor of his sister. She was an important part of his life."

Asked what Mandi's relationship was with Jaden and Rylan, 24, who plays for the Worcester Sharks of the AHL, Carol's voice cracked for a moment.

"Mandi was their role model," Carol said. "She was very close to them. They all love sports. They all competed since they were little. They learned from her. She learned from them. They had skills. She had work ethic. She grasped from them. They grasped from her. I still think today they dedicate where they are and what they do to her. They saw her go on the ice at 6 a.m. They saw her study until 10 at night. They saw her passion."

From that passion grows a legacy. Aleca Hughes, Yale's former captain, started the Mandi Schwartz Foundation. At the heart of the organization is the push to raise awareness of the need for bone marrow and umbilical cord blood donors. There is an annual drive. It is an entirely noble pursuit, tied to the Be The Match Registry, one that led Upper Deck to create special Mandi Schwartz cards that contain a piece of one of her game-worn jerseys for its "Heroic Inspirations" series.

"At Yale alone, there have been about 4,000 who have been swabbed for donations to the national registry and then to get 23 matches out that is unbelievable," Rick said. "Back home in Canada they've lined up a lot of bone marrow drives, probably there have been 3,000-4,000 donors as well, although in Canada they keep the matches confidential. That's an awful lot of people donating and to get that many matches is so great."

One of those donor matches was Yale football player John Oppenheimer. That's ostensibly 23 lives saved by the drives spearheaded by the football, women's hockey and field hockey teams. Although not tied to Yale, this week also brought word Penn State hockey player David Glen found out he was a match through the national registry and began his donation process Friday.

"Before Mandi got diagnosed, I didn't know a whole lot about any of this," Jaden said. "When she got sick and you start going through the process, you learn how much you can help.

"She has impacted a lot of people's lives. Mine, too. I couldn't be happier with the awareness for cancer that is going on, through her, with all the bone marrow drives they've found quite a few matches already. And that's really important."

For the game, Yale brought Mandi's jersey out and hung it behind its bench. The jersey has a permanent home hanging in the Yale locker room.

"I went in there and saw it," Jaden said softly. "It's pretty neat."

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