Hockey Challenge makes it more than just a game

Mar 4, 2016, 2:47 PM | Updated: 2:49 pm
The 2016 Hockey Challenge raised over $200,000 for the Ronald McDonald House. (T-Birds photo)...
The 2016 Hockey Challenge raised over $200,000 for the Ronald McDonald House. (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

When the Seattle Thunderbirds defeated the rival Everett Silvertips 2-0 on Saturday night in front of a packed ShoWare Center audience, they picked up an important two points in the standings to aid their quest to catch the Silvertips for first place in the U.S. Division.

The victory and points in the standings, however, paled in comparison to the events that took place on and around the ice that day.

Feb. 27 marked the 18th annual Hockey Challenge, which began in 1999 and has now raised over $4.9 million for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington and Alaska (RMHC). This year’s challenge specifically raised over $200,000, which will go toward a service that provides housing, meals, groceries, and much more for the families of children with serious illnesses.

One of the children who has benefited from the mission of the Ronald McDonald House is Caleb Gallaher, a 7-year-old young man who suffers from Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer that affects approximately 350 new individuals every year.

“It was really exciting,” said Ben Gallaher, Caleb’s father, about the whole experience. “Caleb had a rough day and really was looking forward to it. I think he especially liked sitting up by the glass before the game and watching the players.”

Caleb had the honor of dropping the ceremonial first puck, accompanied not only by captains from the T-Birds and Silvertips, but also his family and local celebrities that would be participating in that evening’s celebrity all-star game.

“My wife and I are very grateful and thankful that we’re able to stay here,” said Gallaher. “Without the Ronald McDonald House, we wouldn’t be able to take care of Caleb and stay together as a family. Caleb needs full-time care and we wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Seattle where he has to be for his treatment and stay together as a family.”

As if pushing through a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment wasn’t difficult enough, Caleb and his family were caught completely off guard. To that point, he had been a pretty typical 7 year old – healthy, happy, good-natured, and active. Caleb actually checked out just fine after a doctor’s appointment following his seventh birthday, but a few short weeks later his parents discovered a tumor in his nose. They had the tumor removed within two weeks and figured that the procedure would be nothing more than a small bump in the road.

That turned out not to be the case when the family received the pathology and Caleb’s diagnosis shortly after. Anxiety began to set in as sedation and the potential side-effects of radiation became a real possibility.

For Caleb specifically, walking into the room, preparing for sedation and seeing the “big machine” were particularly stressful. To help Caleb and himself get through the experience, Ben came up with the idea of giving Caleb an action figure every time he went in for treatment. It was something for Caleb to look forward to at first, though Ben says Caleb has since lost some of his interest in the toys.

On the night of the Hockey Challenge, one moment in particular stood out to both Ben and Caleb.

“All of the guys (who joined Caleb for the puck drop) said hi to us and introduced themselves,” recalls Ben. “One guy had even told us that he had cancer and chemo and radiation and provided words of encouragement to help Caleb see that there was something on the other side of this.”

The individual that provided those words of encouragement was none other than Emmy-winning Q13 FOX anchor Bill Wixey, a major supporter of the Hockey Challenge and himself a survivor of Hodgkins Lymphoma.

“I told Caleb that I too was a cancer survivor, and I knew what it was like to go through chemo and radiation and to lose your hair,” said Wixey, whose life was transformed in an instant from local celebrity to cancer patient. “I also told him that I beat it, and he will too. He was having a rough day, and I wanted to give him something to hang onto.”

Wixey has been personally involved in every Hockey Challenge since its inception 18 years ago and works closely with RMHC on a number of charitable ventures.

“If you make a single visit to the Ronald McDonald house, and see the life-changing work that is being done there, there’s no way that you can be unaffected,” said Wixey, who participated in the celebrity all-star game following the Thunderbirds victory. “It’s amazing what that House does for families who need a place to stay while going through the toughest time of their lives.”

Another participant in the Challenge, Dan Fernandez, was part of a team from Microsoft, the Developer Division specifically, that raised over $18,000 alone for the cause.

Microsoft has been integral in the growth of the Ronald McDonald House, pledging two million dollars in 2001 to support the House’s expansion. For every dollar that is raised by participants in the Challenge, Microsoft provides a matching donation. In addition, the technology company matches volunteer hours.

For Dan, he’s had acquaintances that have personally benefited from the Ronald McDonald House, making his participation in the Hockey Challenge even more meaningful.

“I’ve known people who have spent time at the Ronald McDonald House and it was critical to their recovery,” said Fernandez. “It’s up to each individual how they raise money. I’ve heard people offer to shave their head if they reach a certain donation amount. One year we offered custom jerseys to our Developer team members if you hit your goal.”

“When you think about how the House can serve up to 80 families in their building and how much it would cost for all of those families to live, it helps to quantify the impact that it has on our community.”

The nearly two decades-long partnership between the Ronald McDonald House and the Thunderbirds has proven immeasurable for both those who benefit from the money raised and those who take part in fundraising efforts. The charitable mission of the House has provided a haven for families that are forced into an incomparably uncomfortable position, giving them the resources they need to remain together while they battle through the terrifying diagnoses of their loved ones.

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Hockey Challenge makes it more than just a game