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Wings' MSU alums enjoy giving back

by Michael Caples / Detroit Red Wings
EAST LANSING, Mich. – For the majority in attendance, the annual Skate with the Pros at Michigan State’s Munn Arena last week served an opportunity to skate with their favorite current and former Spartans.

But for a select few, it meant so much more.

For Julie Gordon, of DeWitt, Michigan, it was an opportunity to see the players who have become dear family friends. Her son, Brandon, met many of the Spartans during their 2007 NCAA championship run, through the Spartan Buddies program, started by former Spartan and current Red Wings Drew Miller. With Spartan Buddies, MSU athletes visit the pediatrics wing of Sparrow Hospital, and spend time with the children and their families.

“My son Brandon Gordon was an avid hockey player, started playing hockey pretty much when he started to walk,” his mother said. “I brought him to MSU hockey games ever since he was a baby. … He grew-up in Spartan Stadium and Brandon played hockey for St. Johns skating association.

In February 2007, Brandon Gordon was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor that developed in his femur. Even in the midst of their national championship run, the Spartans players, like Justin Abdelkader, Jeff Lerg and Chris Snavely, still found time to visit Brandon during his hospital stays.

Even after last week’s skating event ended, Abdelkader spent time talking to the Gordon family at Munn Arena.

“We just got close,” Abdelkader said. “It was during our championship run there, we met him. Somebody called over from the hospital to one of the guys on our team and said that a kid who was a huge hockey fan just got diagnosed with cancer. We went there and made an instant connection, and hopefully we were kind of an inspiration for him while he was fighting that horrible disease, because he was definitely an inspiration for our championship run too; just seeing how hard he was fighting.

“It was funny because he would come down to the locker room during practice and after practice, by the end of the season he had his own locker in there where he could hang his coat up and put his stuff in there and come out and hang out on the bench. It was a really neat relationship with him and especially for myself.”

Unfortunately, Brandon Gordon lost his courageous two-year battle with cancer when he died on Feb. 22, 2009.

Stories like Brandon’s are what drive Abdelkader and Miller to continue working with their alma mater to help children battling cancer. Though the Red Wings’ pair skated together for only one year in East Lansing, their charitable work has had a profound impact in the mid-Michigan community.

Building off the success Miller had with instituting the Spartan Buddies program, Abdelkader started the Shoot for the Cure initiative in January 2008. The program, which has already raised over $33,000, raises funds for children’s cancer charities by hosting ‘chuck-a-puck’ at MSU home games, and with silent auctions of memorabilia donated by MSU players. The money raised from the Skate with the Pros event will be donated to Sparrow Hospital and the Brandon’s Defense Foundation, which was created by the Gordons to support children fighting cancer. 

“The first one we did was Spartan Buddies, and that was more of our time, going there, spending time with the kids in the children’s floor at Sparrow,” Miller said. “Justin came up with the idea for Shoot for the Cure and that brought more of the money involved to help fund play stuff for the kids at the hospital and also just go to research for cancer.

“Both of them coming together, I think it’s great to have both aspects, the players being involved … all the (MSU athletes) go there and they spend their time with the kids, they bring them away from the hospital atmosphere and let them be a kid again, to smile and have some fun, and then to be able to have the money-thing involved now, really helps bring our charity to the next level.”

Every summer, MSU hockey alumni return to Munn Arena to prepare for their respective pro training camps. Players from the NHL, AHL, ECHL, and many other leagues all return to their college lockers to get in shape for the upcoming season.
The Red Wings’ duo saw the gathering of their former teammates and friends as an opportunity to raise money for a cause.

“One day a week we do something special for the fans and get them to help out with our charities,” Miller said, referring to the Skate with the Pros event. “All the guys here do a great job of helping give back, and myself and Justin and along with some of the people that are involved with the charity stuff through Michigan State planned this event to go out and skate with the fans. You pay 10 bucks and it goes right for the local hospital for children’s cancer, so it’s a great cause and all the guys have a lot of fun doing it.”

Jim Slater, now a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, said he has been impressed by what his fellow Spartans have been doing.

“You always want to do something to help someone else,” Slater said. “When you have a status like being an NHL hockey player, you definitely want to take that to the next level. Drew and Abs started this in college and it’s carried on very nicely. Playing in Detroit there, it’s worked really well. You can tell by the showing today, it was fantastic, and they’re doing a lot to help cancer research in the Lansing area.”

MSU coach Rick Comley said that seeing what Abdelkader and Miller have done has been a special experience – far greater than seeing them scoring game-winning goals.

“It isn’t just the hockey expectations or the school expectations, it’s their activity and involvement with the community and the different causes that they rally around,” Comley said. “You always want a couple guys to set the standard, and certainly Drew did a great job, and Abs came in and carried things on, started the Shoot for the Cure, which was his own. Those are the kids that you want in your program, those are the kids that make your program better.”

Shawn Smith was another fan at Skate with the Pros for more than just seeing some of his favorite players. Smith’s son, Andrew, was one of the children welcomed into the Spartan family. When asked what impact the programs had on his son, he said there was no way to measure its meaning.

“Our son had a rare brain tumor, that when he was diagnosed we knew he had six months to maybe a year to live,” Smith said. “Fortunately he lived for two years, but most of that time was refined to the hospital or a wheelchair. Even in the hospital, they would bring a special ambulance over and bring him over to Michigan State games and allow him to come. The guys just treated him like he was royalty when he was here, and it was just fun times. He didn’t have a very good quality of life at the end, but these guys made his quality of life worth living. It was just a great blessing for our family.”

Smith said the first time that his family met Abdelkader and Miller was at a prior Skate with the Pros event.

“We met them here at the Spartans’ pro skate,” Smith said. “Andrew had gotten sick after they had already left the university, so we reaped the benefits of what they started. Then last year when Andrew was here, he was in a wheelchair, so Justin and some of the other guys pushed him around in his wheelchair. Andrew thought it was neat because he didn’t think he was going to get to participate in the skate, so they brought him right out on the ice in the wheelchair and skated him around, and that was really neat.

“I don’t think they can understand the impact it has on the families,” Smith said. “When you go through cancer especially, and you know it’s terminal, little things mean more to you than they ever could before. Our son would count the days, he would watch the clock, you know. To him, it wasn’t the fact that they were professional hockey players, that didn’t mean much to him; it was the fact that they cared about him.”

Both Miller and Abdelkader were pleased with the turnout for last week’s event, which had at approximately 300 people. When asked what he would want Wings’ fans to know about the programs, Abdelkader said it’s all about the kids.

“It goes for a great cause,” he said. “Obviously, we got really close with a lot of the kids at the hospital here and it all goes to cancer research and the kids at the hospital. Just the relationship we’ve built with them, it’s something special. With what these kids are going through, every day they’re fighting for their lives, and it’s just so tough to see at their age, because they don’t know any better. They want to be out on the playground or out with their friends, and they’re having to fight this terrible disease, so it’s just something good to give back.”

For more information on Spartan Buddies and Shoot for a Cure, visit For more information on Brandon’s Defense Foundation click here.

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