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Beard-A-Thon Winners Show Incredible Support

by James Santelli / Pittsburgh Penguins

The last photo Chuck Hammel posted on the Penguins’ “Beard-A-Thon” campaign website was taken in a hospital bed.

The 29-year-old was watching Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final between Pittsburgh and Boston from his home in the Strip District when he suddenly began to feel pains in his side. He went to the hospital where doctors made the diagnosis: leukemia.

Third-place winner Chuck Hammel

But Chuck wanted to continue his tradition of taking a picture of the playoff beard he was growing in support of the Penguins, which was serving as dual support for the team's "Beard-A-Thon" campaign. So before Game 4 of the Penguins-Bruins series, Chuck laid down wearing his blue hospital gown patterned with red diamonds, leaned his head back against the raised-up hospital bed at UPMC Shadyside and took a photo of his beard, more of thick chinstrap with a scruffy mustache on top.

"It was a pretty big inside joke between my family and friends because I'm not really a great beard-grower," Chuck said.

Hammel's parents previously worked on the auction committee for the Mario Lemiuex Celebrity Invitational and Chuck has also seen many family members diagnosed with cancer, losing his mother to the disease.

He decided to participate in the Beard-A-Thon for the first time this season, saying “It’s important for me to take the bull by the horns.” And Chuck raised a total of $3,510 during the Stanley Cup Playoffs to help others before learning of his own diagnosis, the third-most money collected during the Beard-A-Thon.

Together with Jason Fowler of Meadville ($5,900) and Thomas Crooks of Washington, Pa. ($4,880), the three top earners earned almost one-fifth of the more than $71,000 in total donations for the Mario Lemieux Foundation.

As his beard grew (or tried to), so did support for the Lemieux Foundation from friends and family members. And when he told those close to him about his leukemia diagnosis earlier this month, Chuck said he "was really humbled by all the support." He is currently going to the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at the Hillman Cancer Center twice a week for outpatient treatments and is feeling better every day.

"It's kind of an interesting twist," Chuck said. "The way the support, the charity had kind of come full-circle."

First-place winner Jason Fowler has also supported the Lemieux Foundation for years, playing in the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp and attending the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational golf tournament at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

First-place winner Jason Fowler

Jason, 37, works as a physician's assistant, and his wife is also in the medical field. He said they are close friends with parents of leukemia patients, so as a show of support, Jason decided to grow a full beard for the first time and raise money for the foundation through family, friends, co-workers and soliciting donations on Twitter and Facebook.

How did his three kids reacted to their newly-bearded father?

"My youngest daughter was not a big fan of it at all," Jason said. "Then after the Penguins lost and I shaved it the next day, she started crying because I didn't have the beard anymore. Probably more because the Penguins were out of the playoffs that she was crying."

For placing first in Beard-A-Thon donations, Jason received an authentic helmet autographed by the 2012-13 Penguins, courtesy of the team, an autographed Mario Lemieux jersey from the Foundation and year's worth of haircuts from Supercuts.

Chuck was given mini-helmets autographed by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury from the Penguins, four First Niagara Club seats for a game next season from the Foundation as well as the haircuts. Chuck called the helmets and tickets "great gifts" but said that he can't accept them, that he only received them because of the generosity of friends and family (though he will keep the haircuts).

Instead, Chuck and Pitt-Ohio Express, where he works as Director of Corporate Services, will raffle off his prizes and donate the proceeds to the Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers. The born-and-raised Pittsburgher says he wants to support the work of the center at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute however he can.

"It's not about me. It's about the Foundation. It's about helping other people and really raising awareness," Chuck said. "I think that the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Lemieux family do a terrific job of going out to the community and really giving their time and resources."

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