Calgary Flames charity season lasts all year long

At the age of 16 Madi Freeman had already done one of the hardest things anyone can do, saying goodbye to parent.

Last year her father died from cancer, then almost six months to the date, Freeman herself was about to fight the same battle.

“In February when we got home from California, we were on vacation and actually we went to see a Flames game there a few days before we came back,” Freeman said. “I had a sleepover with my friend. I came home the next morning and felt really sick and gross, I was throwing up,” Freeman explained. “My mom thought that it was just the flu. I would try eat stuff and drink stuff but I just could not keep it down.”

The symptoms worsened. Freeman missed school, bedridden and unable to move because she felt so ill. Still believing that it was nothing more than flu, Freeman’s mother decided it was time to go to the doctor to make sure.

At first the diagnosis was a bug that had been going around, affecting some teenagers, and Freeman should not be alarmed. The doctor urged her to go back to school, but also decided to run a full blood analysis to rule out any uncertainties.

“It was fine, we headed home. My mom stopped to get me some soup and apple juice because we still thought it was a (type) of cold. When we got home I went to lay down to sleep but my mom came in and said that the doctor called and wanted us to go to emergency right now,” Freeman recalls.

Freeman was hardly able to walk and didn’t know what was wrong, but the Freeman family made their way to the High River emergency room.

Freeman said she sensed her mother knew something, but was hesitant to say anything. She didn’t know what was wrong, until their doctor said there was a high possibility she had cancer and would need to be transferred to the Calgary Children’s Hospital.

Two days after starting treatment, Freeman was given a full diagnosis —Burkitt’s Leukemia, a rare, fast-growing type of blood cancer.

However, even with her new diagnosis Freeman said she wasn’t really feeling sad.

“I was mad, like how could that happen to me when I just went through that with my dad,” she said.

Freeman has now battled cancer for seven months, and on the eve of her 17th birthday she still had one more round of chemotherapy.

But then something happened.

Joe Colborne, who has lost family members to cancer, makes a point to participate regularly with the Flames hospital visits. Photo courtesy of Jenn Pierce, Calgary Flames

Her 12-year-old brother Ty wrote a letter to Bob Hartley, head coach of the Calgary Flames, asking for a meet-and-greet with the team at a home game to help pick up his sister’s spirits.

But Hartley and the Flames Foundation did something better — they surprised Freeman at her house.

“It meant so much,” said Freeman, adding her brother wouldn’t let her see what he was writing. “I just thought that it was for my birthday but no, that’s not what it was.”

On Aug. 27, centre Joe Colborne, 25, joined Harvey the Hound to celebrate with the Freeman’s family.

“When I opened the door I was like, ‘Holy crap, that’s a hockey player,’” she explained. “I was so shocked but it was awesome.”

Freeman said the Flames’ visit was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for her and that it really helped boost her spirits.

“At the time they showed up there I still had one round of chemo left, which is six days of chemo at the Children’s Hospital and I was not looking forward to it,” said Freeman. “I was like, ‘Yes, I can get through this and then I will get to go another hockey game.’”

The visit didn’t just leave a huge impact on Freeman; it left a pretty big imprint on Colborne, as well.

Colborne knew Freeman had been down some tough roads in her young life, but meeting her was pretty special to him.

“We were expecting to see, you know, a girl who was struggling . . . not defeated by it, but you know, going through a tough time mentally,” Colborne said. “We showed up and she just had so much energy — her positive attitude just blew us away.”

Colborne and the rest of the Flames hosted Freeman and her family for a battle of Alberta game against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 17, a battle the Flames lost 5-2.

Colborne Forces

This wasn’t the first time Colborne has hosted fans at a home game.

At the start of the 2014-15 season, Colborne had the idea to create a program that focused on appreciating and recognizing those who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. Appropriately named “Colborne’s Forces,” it’s a program Colborne and the Flames decided to keep going this year. Brian Burke, president of hockey operations for the Flames, helped Colborne launch the program.

“There are so many great charities that you can choose to give your time and effort to, whether it’s the Children’s Hospital or Ronald McDonald House or Kids Cancer Care. “I’ve had family members pass away of cancer . . . it’s a great issue to spend time in,” he said. “But when I think of Armed Forces, it’s not a cancer where you’ve dealt a bad break — these guys are sacrificing and choosing to go and put their lives on the line for the rest of us, so that I can go back and actually play this game that I love and live in a free country.”

Colborne added he has the utmost respect for those who serve in the forces and believes that as a country we do not do enough to thank them for their sacrifices.

Through “Colborne’s Forces,” the Flames star hosts military personnel and their families, and after the game they tour the team’s locker room and get to meet the rest of the Flames.

Colborne is looking to expand the program beyond home games. He is looking to create a country concert for the soldiers next summer.

“I wanted to do something that would involve as many of the Forces as we could and actually get them to come to the concert. We are in the starting stages of getting that planned out.”

With his own charity, Colborne Forces, Colborne is planning a summer country concert for 2016 for all the armed forces. Photo courtesy of Jenn Pierce, Calgary Flames

As a native Calgarian, being part of the local community means a lot to Colborne, who believes charity work and giving back is very important.

“I feel pretty fortunate with certain things that have happened in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in an unbelievable family, and a great support system to help me through tough times,” reflected Colborne. “But I also think that there’s a bunch of people who haven’t had the same opportunities and I think that there are so many ways you can give back — it doesn’t always have to be money, it can be your time, it can be writing a letter back to someone, that can give a bit of excitement or something like that can help keep them going in the right direction.”

Colborne has an impressive resume of charitable work: he is chair of the Mavericks Charity Golf Tournament, which raises more than $200,000 every year with $40,000 going towards the Flames Foundation.

Last season Colborne received the Ralph T. Scurfield Humanitarian Award, a distinction voted on by members of the Flames organization. It goes to the player who best represents perseverance, determination and leadership on the ice while also showing dedication to community off the ice.

“It was a huge honour . . . so many guys do so many things to help out the community. I feel pretty fortunate that people voted for me and it’s something that really means a lot to me,” he said.

Back-to-Back Class Acts

Centre Mikeal Backlund, 26, who won the Scurfield award in 2014, has roots in charity spreading from Calgary all the way to his home country of Sweden. His work in both countries earned the forward the award.

“It was a big night for me. I set up a lot of pride in community work and charity work, so for me it meant a lot to be able [to] get the award and get the appreciation from the organization,” Backlund said.

At the start of the off-season in 2013, one of Backlund’s best friends lost his battle with cancer. Since that summer, Backlund and some of his other friends hold a bike ride to raise money for Ride for Hope.

Colborne’s work with the Ronald McDonald house is one of the key elements that lead to his nomination for the Scurfield Award. Photo courtesy of Jenn Pierce, Calgary Flames

“My five closest friends have an organization called Västerås — that’s the name of our hometown. We try to get companies to donate money and if we do that we have newspaper that donates two pages each month summer where we put the logos of each of the sponsors,” Buckland said.

Ride for Hope helps children with cancer and Backlund has helped raise $23,000 and tries his hardest to make it an annual event.

But Backlund admits that even before his friend died, he loved working with Kids Cancer Care.
“I just felt that is was something, such a big disease, you don’t want a kid to go through that. I just felt that I wanted to do the best that I can to make their lives a little bit better, hopefully.”

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also hits close to home with his girlfriend, Frida Engstrom, whose mother suffered from the disease before passing away two years ago.

One of the major aspects of Backlund’s commitment to supporting ALS is his donation of $200 for every point he registers, a tradition that continues in the 2015-16 season.

Being part of the Calgary community and helping is a great way to stay connected to the fan base, says Backlund

“We are a big part of this city, we have a good fan base so you wanna be a good person showing how to appreciate all the people in the community and try to give back all the support that they show us,” he said.

Freeman, who is now in remission, is a testament to the belief that not only Colborne and Backland have about giving back, but the Flames Foundation’s great effort to give back to Calgarians. She wholeheartedly appreciates the Flames organization and their commitment to the community.

“It shows how great of an organization they are, when they take time out of their day . . . to do something like that for someone, it just means a lot,” Freeman said. “I think it shows other people that they care.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Jenn Pierce

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Grant, agrant@cjournal.ca