Nazareth College and SUNY Oswego ice hockey will face off Jan. 8 in a charity game that will benefit Griffin’s Guardians, the nonprofit Griffin Engle’s family founded to fight pediatric cancer. Shown here is Erin Engle with players at the “Going Gold for Griffin” benefit game in 2015, which was the first fundraiser for the organization. Below: Griffin died from a rare, aggressive brain cancer at the age of 7 in 2014. (Courtesy of Griffin's Guardians)
Nearly four years ago, the Skaneateles boys varsity ice hockey team faced off with Cortland/Homer for a very special occasion: the first fundraiser for Griffin’s Guardians, a Cicero-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting pediatric cancer.
Griffin’s Guardians again takes the spotlight at Allyn Ice Arena next Tuesday, when a different set of Lakers — that is, SUNY Oswego — plays Nazareth College, where two Skaneateles alumni, Owen Kuhns and Ray Falso, hang their skates. Kuhns and Falso proposed the idea of hosting a Nazareth home game in Skaneateles to benefit Griffin’s Guardians.
“The excitement of these two powerhouse hockey teams coming together is hoping to draw close to 1,000 in spectators,” said Erin Engle, who founded Griffin’s Guardians after her 7-year-old son, Griffin, died of a rare, incurable brain cancer in 2014.
“I hope people come out and pack the Allyn arena,” said Skaneateles boys ice hockey coach Mitch Major.
Major and his wife, Kristen, are close to Adam and Erin Engle. Kristen Major served as Erin’s maid of honor at the Engles’ wedding.
Griffin — whose motto was “It’s a great day to be alive!” — lived and breathed hockey. A Detroit Red Wings fan, Griffin made the trek to Skaneateles each week for Coach Major’s hockey skills camp. His dad affectionately called him “hockey puck.”
“Hockey is near and dear to our heart,” Erin Engle said.
When Griffin took a spill on the ice not long before his sixth birthday in 2013, his parents worried he might have a concussion. But a brain MRI showed something far more serious: Griffin had a tumor in the center of his brain. On Aug. 18, 2013 — the day after he turned 6 — Griffin was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, the same aggressive brain cancer that claimed the lives of Sen. John McCain and Beau Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Cancer is awful enough … but when you see a child go through that, that’s very difficult,” Major said.
Despite undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Griffin passed away Sept. 12, 2014, leaving behind his parents, his older sister, Grace, and his younger brother, Everett. The next month, the Engles filed paperwork to form the nonprofit foundation that bears their child’s name, and Griffin’s Guardians officially came into being in December of that year.
In January 2015, the “Going Gold for Griffin” game was held in Skaneateles. The varsity players raised about $4,000 for Griffin’s Guardians. The now-defunct charity Todd’s Fund contributed an additional $1,000.
“It was such a special fundraiser because it was our very first one,” Erin Engle recalled. “At that point, when I saw what the high schoolers were doing to fund raise for the cause, to see how the community rallied behind this event and to see Griffin honored in such a beautiful way, it makes me speechless still almost four years later.”
Major said Owen Kuhns’ mother, Laura Kuhns, has spearheaded much of the planning for the upcoming Nazareth-Oswego game.
“She’s a real go-getter,” Major said, adding, “There’s a lot of details that go into an evening like this and thank goodness we have a lot of people behind the scenes helping this out.”
Engle said Major is doing his part to educate his current players about pediatric cancer, just as Owen Kuhns and Ray Falso are spreading information to their college teammates and coaches.
“I know the alumni players were so touched to be part of the Going Gold for Griffin back in 2015 they wanted to give back to us again,” Engle said.
Major said the coaches at Nazareth and Oswego embraced the idea of a benefit game. He noted the coaches have people in their lives who have been touched by cancer. Oswego men’s coach Ed Gosek lost his wife, Mary, to ovarian cancer in 2017. Mary Gosek was president of the Oswego chapter of Hope for Heather, a Liverpool-based organization dedicated to ovarian cancer awareness and research.
Griffin’s Guardians will have a table at the Nazareth-Oswego games featuring information about its mission and selling signature GG merchandise. The logo is based on the Red Wings’ logo, with the letter G in place of the Red Wings’ tire.
Attendees can also participate in a chuck-a-puck contest and a 50/50 raffle. The Engles will take part in a ceremonial puck drop at the beginning of each game.
“In 2019 we are hoping to surpass our goal of fundraising over $1 million since our inception,” Erin Engle said. “We owe this success to our community, which is filled with our friends, family but also complete strangers who joined our mission.”
While the focus for Tuesday’s game is Griffin’s Guardians, Major said he is hoping Skaneateles can host future charity games.
“If this works out, hopefully we can continue having a college game each year that goes toward a good cause,” said Major, adding that he hopes to raise money for the Skaneateles YMCA.
The mission of Griffin’s Guardians is to support kids with cancer as well as their families. The organization provides financial assistance for families and fundraises for pediatric cancer research. In 2018, Griffin’s Guardians donated $100,000 to assist about 100 families in Central New York. Through a partnership with St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Griffin’s Guardians partially funds a research grant for Dr. Beata Chertok’s work on brain cancer at the University of Michigan.
Griffin’s Guardians also provides support for children and families at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. One GG program collects newly sewn pillowcases to comfort children during their hospital stays. The next deadline to be part of Project Pillowcase is April 1, 2019. Email email@example.com to participate.
Grace Engle, Griffin’s older sister, started the Grace’s Sibling Sunshine program in 2016, which provides gifts for the siblings of kids with cancer. Grace and her friends sell their artwork and crafts to fund the program.
For more information about Griffin’s Guardians and to learn how to “get in the game,” visit griffinsguardians.org.
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.