There has to be energy here because Matt Martin is hosting the event, and everything Martin does is electric.
There’s hooting and hollering from every direction. Fourteen tables make for a lot of noise, especially when Islanders players are brushing elbows with fans and keeping tabs on their teammates' chip stacks at other tables. That doesn’t account for the spectators, fans hanging around the bar or those going to Sydney Esiason’s booth. Even the silent auction is loud and Martin needs several tries to get the crowd to settle to hear the rules.
Buy-ins are allowed for the first hour only.
One-hundred dollars equals $2,000 in chips.
Whoever knocks out an Islander gets a signed jersey.
With that, cards are dealt and the tournament takes off.
The night is about poker and it isn’t. For the fans, it’s a chance to play cards, sit in an intimate venue and get to know the Islanders. For Martin, Max Feinberg, Bryan Calka and Brian Sigler, it’s about getting the Matt Martin Foundation off the ground.
Martin kicked around the idea of starting a foundation for several years, but made it official this summer.
“I want to be more involved in this community, especially now that I’ve been here a long time,” Martin said. “I spend my summers here. I feel a part of it now. I thought [the poker night] was a good opportunity to start the foundation and we'll do a few more events next year and keep branching out from there. In a few years hopefully we'll have a successful, not-for-profit that can support a lot of great charities in this community.”
The Matt Martin
Foundation’s mission is to raise money for causes close to Martin’s heart. Currently, the MMF is fundraising for the NYPD Widows and Children’s Fund, the Association for Children with Down Syndrome, the Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis and the Islanders Children’s Foundation.
“He wanted to make the most of the downtime that he had,” Feinberg said. “He thought if he could use his time for a positive influence in the community, he could generate a lot of money and a lot of awareness for some really great causes.”
Martin said he’s fortunate that he hasn’t encountered any serious tragedies personally, but one look at his charities of choice and there are obvious connections. The 26-year-old is in a relationship with Sydney Esiason, whose brother Gunnar has Cystic Fibrosis. Gunnar and Martin are close friends, so last season, Martin and Cizikas started a program where they invited a guest with CF to home games, before meeting them and taking a picture by the Islanders locker room. They also help raise awareness for the condition.
Martin was already working with Defending the Blue Line, a foundation that supports military families through hockey, so partnering with the NYPD Widows and Children’s Fund is a natural extension. Martin, like his teammates, is already heavily involved with the Islanders Children's Foundation at annual events like the team’s Golf Outing and Casino Night.
The fourth cause is ACDS – a special-needs school in Plainview for children with autism and down syndrome. The connection is less obvious, but the school was brought to his attention this summer when Martin met a man at the Belmont Stakes whose daughter had down syndrome. He told Martin the support services for down syndrome weren’t as developed, but also told him about the school in Plainview. It only took one visit for Martin and his team to add the school to their list of causes.
“We thought that it would be a worthy cause,” Calka said. “We had the opportunity to tour the facility. After we walked out of there we sat down and said there is no way we cannot include this school into our foundation.”
The three trustees handle most of the behind-the-scenes work in the Foundation, but all four are working on it in addition to their full-time day jobs. Calka works for the New York Yankees while Feinberg organizes sports camps, including Matt Martin’s Hockey Academy at Twin Rinks in August.
“I have great people working with me on this and I couldn’t do it without them,” Martin said. “They are putting in a lot of time and effort, but that’s great for me having to focus on the season, having those guys take care of the dirty work and allowing me to do the hands on stuff when the day comes.”
Martin brings a lot to the charity in terms of publicity. He can use his existing status as an NHLer and fan favorite – he’s won the fan-voted Bob Nystrom Award four years in a row – to garner media attention and pack a venue.
“He’s one of the most appreciative guys of where he comes from and where he is,” Feinberg said. “Whether the cameras are on or not, he really makes the time to touch and work and spend time with everyone around him who has supported him.”
He can also bring his teammates.
“My teammates were putting money in to play [poker] and I didn’t even ask them to,” Martin said. “I’m thankful for them to come out and support this. I don’t think we would have had that good of a turnout if 10 of my teammates and Clark Gillies weren’t there also.”
The guest list included Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Ryan Strome and Casey Cizikas, who was the last Islander standing at the tables.
“We’re going to be there for each other no matter what. Just being out there was nothing for us and it meant a lot to him,” Cizikas said. “I don’t think they could have done a better job setting it up and it just showed how hard he worked and how much everyone believes in what he’s doing.”
Martin’s positivity and energy make it easy for people to buy in. He wants to see the foundation grow, be able to put on more events, raise more money and support more causes.
“The intention is to turn this into a foundation that can support Long Island, Brooklyn and where he’s from in Canada for a long time,” Feinberg said. “Not only during his playing days, but once they are over as well.”
Mesita hadn’t even been cleaned up, and yet the group is already thinking ahead. They are planning hockey clinics in the winter and hockey camps for next summer and there’s talk of more charity fundraisers – bowling is an idea being rolled out.
Poker night raised $45,000, but the group still needs to debrief. Also, the NHL season means the next events will have to be planned strategically.
“We’ll really hammer out what worked and what didn’t work,” Calka said. “I feel like that next event we do is going to be that big event. Instead of having over 200 people, we’ll go for an event with 500 people and we can hopefully double the net proceeds to these charities.”
The poker event was more than a good start, as $45,000 is a substantial sum in a room of fewer than 250 people. Poker shark Emily Hiltzik won the tournament, though the Foundation won the night, introducing itself to the community in grand fashion.