NEW HAVEN, Conn. – In the dressing room of the Yale women’s hockey team, No. 17 still hangs in its proper stall. One day a year, the jersey is brought out rinkside and hung behind the home bench at Ingalls Rink, a reminder that Mandi Schwartz is always present at her team’s hockey games.
Friday night in New Haven, the Schwartz family presence was never greater. For the first time, Mandi’s brother Jaden was there in the rink his sister loved – and the kid brother brought a posse. Every one of Jaden’s St. Louis Blues teammates, along with coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Doug Armstrong, took a timeout from their four-game road trip to attend the “White Out for Mandi,” the annual Yale game that honors Jaden’s late sister, a Bulldog hockey player who died in 2011 following a 28-month fight with a rare form of leukemia.
Call it an unconventional way for St. Louis to celebrate an important bounceback win at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, or to prepare for a road-trip finale at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. All that seemed almost trivial to the Blues players who perched in a corner section of Ingalls, wearing their road white jerseys for the White Out and chatting up awestruck youth hockey players – many of whom had been at the rink for hours after watching the Blues practice there in the afternoon.
Whether those youth players or the Blues were more pleased to be there, it was sometimes hard to tell.
“It’s fun to have these little breaks in the season, break the routine a little bit,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the New Rochelle, N.Y., native who scored the tiebreaking goal to beat the Rangers on Thursday, and who played youth hockey himself at Ingalls Rink. “But more than anything, to be here for [Jaden] and help him out and help his family out – really, we’re not doing much, we’re just trying to be a great supporting cast for Jaden.”
Jaden Schwartz was drafted by St. Louis in June 2010, some 10 months before his sister succumbed to acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells for which Mandi needed, but never could find, a donor match for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
This season, Jaden, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound winger, has 16 goals and 35 points as a 21-year-old – Thursday’s was his 100th NHL game – for a Blues team that is by all indications a Stanley Cup contender. So when the NHL schedule came out last summer, his parents, Rick and Carol, set out to plan the fourth annual White Out – which raised funds for the Mandi Schwartz Foundation – around the Blues’ visit to the three New York-area teams. (New Haven is about 70 miles from New York City.)
“We expected maybe two or three buddies to come and join us for a game,” Rick Schwartz said. “But when Doug Armstrong said the whole team’s coming, and they’re going to be supporting Jaden … I see them here together, I’m glad they’re here by Jaden’s side today. This is a tough day for him.”
Jaden, meanwhile, was “shocked” by his teammates’ gesture. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I knew I was going to come, and maybe I’d bring some teammates, but it just kind of escalated, and one day, the whole team is coming. Yeah, shocked. And it means a lot.”
In between the Blues’ practice and the Yale game (a 2-2 tie with Brown), Jaden spent his first trip to Mandi’s campus on a Rick-and-Carol-guided tour of his sister’s dorm, and some of her classrooms. While the attention drawn to Mandi’s foundation, as well as the marrow donor drives she inspired, in conjunction with the “Be The Match” registry, is welcome, Jaden said he was looking forward to a bit of quiet reflection, to sit by Mandi’s locker that the team still keeps intact, “to get away and walk around.”
The Blues’ own getaway takes them to Long Island on Saturday, where a victory would give them a 3-1-0 road trip and help wash away the taste of Tuesday’s 7-1 thumping in New Jersey. Or maybe that sour taste is already gone.
“I think all of us, we get used to the [NHL] lifestyle, and at times you lose sight of other factors that are important in life,” Armstrong said while his Blues practiced before about 300 fans. “To get to come here, you realize what this is for, what this means.”
“You know, we first started looking at [Jaden] when he was 17 years old,” Hitchcock said. “We watched him play at Colorado College, we’ve watched him grow up in the organization. He’s a teammate, he’s a friend. This is about family.”
(Photo credit: Sam Rubin, Yale Sports Publicity)