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INSPIRED

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

O

n day five, that particular Tuesday in mid-February must have felt like tropical relief - at least in temperature.

The players who were approaching the halfway point of the event said the rain falling around them didn't do any favours for the playing conditions. The ice softens, the skates drag through the fresh layer of water that won't freeze, the knees start to work overtime - overtime being the operative word, as these skaters have to work in shifts according to the guidelines set out by the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the first four days of the marathon fundraiser, temperatures on Dr. Brent Saik's property just east of Edmonton had not risen above -15 degrees Celsius, and in the dead of night that number had fallen, at points, to a bone-chilling 40 degrees below zero with wind chill.

But the frigid cold is something that can be combatted when you know what to expect and how to prepare. With several of the skaters participating for the fourth, fifth or even sixth time, their wily vet status has them ready for anything the Albertan winter might throw their way. The experienced skaters are quick to send their list of must-haves when a player signs up for the first time.

Despite what the sudden temperature twist did for conditions that particular day, the group of 40 players welcomed a balmy two degrees Celsius as they attempted, for the sixth time, to break the record for the World's Longest Hockey Game - all in support of cancer research.

The pace the teams skate is slow and labored. It has to be.

But that pace does not emulate the urgency the group feels for the cause. It will take over 10 days, and over 250 hours, this go-around to break the official Guinness World Record, but it's a blink in time to people who have witnessed countless family members and friends suffer through months and even years of chemo treatments, radiation therapy, pain, recovery and more.

It's an inspired group of humans, doing inspiring work.

THE EVOLUTION

The catalyst for this event is Saik, who was born and raised in the Edmonton area. Despite his roots in hockey country, he admits to only lacing up his hockey skates when he and 39 others hit the ice for the marathon hockey game.

"I think I only play hockey every three years," laughed Saik.

It may be only every three years, but the time spent on the ice during the one grueling event would likely surpass the hours most casual beer leaguers put in during multiple seasons.

The 49-year-old optometrist left Edmonton as a young man when he ventured to Portland, Oregon as an aspiring baseball player after receiving a scholarship to play at the collegiate level. He recalls starkly his father's reaction when he took to the field and saw the competition his son would be up against.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Brent, you better get a good education while you're down here.'"

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Saik heeded his father's advice and managed to balance a collegiate baseball career while completing his education to become an eye doctor.

After completing his schooling and with his collegiate baseball days behind him, Saik returned to Alberta - doctorate in hand - with the intention of deepening his roots in his home province.

It was connections in the Edmonton sporting community that led him to an opportunity with the Edmonton Eskimos, and eventually the Edmonton Oilers - where he's remained the hockey club's optometrist for roughly 20 years.

Like most kids in Canada, hours spent on a frozen pond or an outdoor rink can pile up in a hurry and it often happens in a way that feels fleeting. You're out there because you love it. You come inside with wind-burnt cheeks, chapped lips and sore knees, wondering how the elements had time to affect you while you were tucking it short-side over and over on that one friend who actually had full goalie gear.

It was after one of those long informal shinny sessions in 2003 that got Saik and his friends wondering how long they could actually play and what the current record was, if there even was one.

A record did exist, and an idea was conceived. If Brent and his pals were going to be ripping around on the ice for hours anyway, they might as well make it count for something more.

SANCTUARY

In 1994, Saik lost his father Terry to cancer. While ill, Terry made clear one wish he had for Brent - to help keep others, especially kids, out of the position he himself was in at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

Saik made good on his promise by conceiving the Annual Terry Saik Memorial Golf Tournament in 1996. That left the winter months ripe with opportunity and the ideation of the World's Longest Hockey Game came into focus a few years later.

The inaugural event lasted about 70 hours and helped raise $150,000 to purchase a gene analyzer to be used in pediatric cancer research at the Cross Cancer Institute. From there, Saik and company only had sights on being bigger and better. Unfortunately, the next event was spurred on by another loss in the Saik family when Brent's wife, Susan, succumbed to the disease in June of 2003 - just months after the first time the record was broken.

Heartache only steeled Saik's resolve.

When the 40 skaters strapped on their skates for the next game in 2005, the event was bursting at the seams with even more inspiration. Many returnees came out to the facility on Saik's property, affectionately dubbed Saiker's Acres, to do it all again.

This year, there are five skaters who are participating for the sixth time and many other returnees.

Lurking somewhere in the back of their minds every time - no doubt - is the reality of the physical toll the event takes on a body.

Blisters, frostbite, lost toenails, torn bicep muscles, mental exhaustion and more. The list of ailments, bumps and bruises is seemingly neverending.

But those memories - those aches and pains - get buried under the mountain of will and inspiration they draw from their own experiences and the camaraderie that the event creates every time they hit the ice.

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Beyond the complicated logistics involved and the incredible team of dedicated volunteers required to pull off such a long and grueling outdoor event, there are also the stringent guidelines set out by the Guinness Book of World Records that have to be followed if the group wants to officially set the new record each time.

You get 40 players, 20 on each team - that's it.

If someone has to drop out, the workload has to be adjusted and you play with 19. The groups skate in shifts - usually five hours long. The max shift length can be eight hours, but Saik says they try to avoid that if they can.

Every hour, there is a ten-minute break for the Zamboni to clear the ice and teams have to return to action immediately as the break expires. There's a clock that counts down from ten minutes and the group gets back at it the second it hits zero.

Anchored to the rink is their sanctuary.

When a shift ends, players retire to a clubhouse built by Saik and his family specifically for the event. As the event evolved, so too did the needs of the group - and the facility was built. The rules state the skaters can't leave the premises of where the event is held. They eat, sleep and live the game with all their teammates for however long it takes that year.

Saik attests that the clubhouse is where a lot of group therapy takes place and where the will to forge on is continually fostered.

"You come in and you'd like to get some rest but it's tough. You're sitting in the locker room and swapping stories," he said.

"You've got literally six hours to get some sleep before you have to be back on the ice and you've been up for 18 hours. You should get some rest, but sometimes you don't. We just sit up talking about why we're here and why we're doing this." 

Sometimes the inspiration comes from the outside as well. There's a steady stream of friends, family and people from the community who stop by to show support.

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On the fifth day of this year's event, it was two spectators in particular that helped rally the troops.

"I see a lot of these guys are skating around right now like they haven't for the past two days," joked Saik.

Oilers captain Connor McDavid and defenceman Darnell Nurse watched from the sidelines. It was an off-day for the club, but the two had to see this for themselves.

"They're doing something for such a great cause, raising so much money and impacting so many people's lives," said Nurse.

"These are true athletes out here, battling through anything. We're fortunate just to come out here and try to get the morale up a little bit."

His teammate echoed that sentiment.

"What they're doing is pretty remarkable. To come out and see it firsthand is very special," added McDavid.

"They're battling the elements but sticking to it and grinding away. You can't say enough good things about it."

There are trainers, nurses, massage therapists and various other medical staff present around the clock, but a visit like this provides relief of another kind - a jolt of community pride to pump some blood to many exhausted extremities. 

"It was very nice that they stopped by. It went from cold to rain so it was a little humdrum today, so this visit means a lot," said Saik.

"The Oilers are our community. We're here from them and they're here for us. That's the way this town works."

THE WILL

The existing record of 250 hours, three minutes and 21 seconds was established last summer by a group in Buffalo. The two groups have actually taken turns breaking the record - all in the common pursuit of raising money for cancer research.

"The organizer in Buffalo just sent me a note not more than ten minutes ago and just said 'keep going.' I like that this thing has gone beyond just this rink," said Saik.

He leans up against the boards and tells the story.

The boards are high-end in quality and part of the upgrades the rink received when Saik and company wanted to go bigger after the first game. Just to Saik's right is a section around the outside of the rink made of plywood. It's a piece from the original rink boards from the very first event. It's a constant reminder of how far this has all evolved.

A couple players sit in the covered bench as they finish up their most recent shift. The smell of analgesic topical ointment fills the air as skaters apply it to their aching muscles.

Friends, family, and countless volunteers buzz around, setting out fresh platters of food or stocking the fridge.

Taped on the wall is a poster board with a collage of photos of loved ones lost.

The simple, yet powerful messaging, "our inspiration" sits in the centre.

There is a note from the owner of a local pizza vendor who had supplied food for the event at some point, pleading for the participants to enjoy the pizza and to keep going. They themselves had lost two parents to cancer.

With this being the sixth attempt at breaking the record, there are plenty of newspaper clippings pinned all over the wall, documenting their journey. Some of the paper is yellow and stiff, capturing somewhat perfectly the sheer amount of hours put in since the event's inception over 15 years ago. 

The World's Longest Hockey Game has raised $3.4 million over the first five events and this year the goal is to add another $2 million onto that. You can bet as long as these warriors' legs are working, they'll be back again.

Saik may be getting older, but he knows his work isn't done yet.

"What we're doing is easy. Fighting cancer is the hard part. When things get tough here, we just think of what our loved ones fought through."

Inspired work, from inspiring people.

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