University of Colorado Boulder News Corps
On a typical Wednesday morning at Edge Ice Arena, skates cut into a sparkling, freshly cleaned sheet of ice. Patrick Donnelly is standing on the bench spitting blood because his wisdom teeth were pulled the day prior. But he wouldn’t miss supporting his friends and teammates at a practice. Not for pulled teeth. Not for the mid-March snowstorm. And certainly not for his heart condition.
Hockey players have a toughness to them, but Donnelly and the rest of his crew of amateurs, all part of the Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation, aren’t afraid to share what’s in their hearts with the world.
Donnelly is here, at the Littleton ice arena, for hockey as much as he is for the community the players have built around it.
Dawg Nation started with a pass of a hat among friends more than a decade ago. Since then, the men's league hockey team has evolved into an organization that has given away more than $4 million to those who need it most.
It all began in 2009 when the Dawgs were just 15 friends who loved playing hockey together. Then, in the span of just nine days that February, three of them were diagnosed with cancer.
“Each time I would pass my hat around the room and we would go see Danny or Dave or Andy in the hospital,” Dawg Nation founder and CEO Marty Richardson said. “It wasn't that we gave them 250 bucks, but it was the fact that they have buddies that had their back.”
All three won their battles.
About a year later, Jack Kelly, a fourth member of the Dawgs, would come down with an autoimmune disease. In six months, Kelly was gone. Richardson spoke at his funeral, and it was the first time he had lost a close friend.
“I told his three daughters, ‘I want to do something in your dad’s honor,’” Richardson added. “‘I don’t know what it is, but I want to do something.’”
Eight months later, in 2011, Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation was born. Nobody was sure, including Richardson, what it would grow to be.
“We started Dawg Nation, and what it was designed for was [that] we can't be the only team in the whole area that needs help or has players that need help,” Richardson said. “So we put on a [hockey] tournament to help a couple of guys, and then we put on a golf tournament, and we put on a comedy night, and all of these different things in that first year.”
After that, it just kept growing and growing.
Along the way, Donnelly found Dawg Nation. Or, rather, Dawg Nation found him. About 10 years ago, Donnelly was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
He was forced to quit his job and moved back into his parents basement because of his heart. But he found a new calling: becoming an operations manager at Dawg Nation.
He fought his heart condition with medicine at first, but as time went on, it worsened and his heart was too far gone for the medicine to help. Doctors installed a pump in his left ventricle to keep him alive by circulating blood to his body.
He was also put on a heart transplant list, but was okay with the pump because it worked.
“I was implanted with this LVAD and all of a sudden I had a new lease on life. So I decided to get back in shape,” Donnelly said. “One day I got a wild hair to put on my skates and go get on the ice. It was just so obvious that that’s what I should be doing to stay in shape.”
Donnelly would keep getting on the ice while also learning his limits of how hard he could push his body. He decided as long as he has warm blood in his body, he'll spend his time on the cold ice he loves.
As Richardson said, Donnelly, who relied on the team for support as he first hit the ice, now thrives on helping others.
“He all of a sudden was in a position not to accept, but to give,” Richardson said.
Or, as Donnelly said, “I use what's left of my heart to help people.”
Recently, Dawg Nation made their way up to Minnesota. A family was in need of help, and the Dawgs responded. They were there for Ethan Glynn, a three-sport athlete in hockey, baseball and football. Some would call Glynn a superstar bound for the pros. But just 11 plays into his freshman high school football season, his life changed on a routine tackle. In one moment, Glynn became a paraplegic.
A pond hockey tournament was organized, and Glynn and his family had $81,000 to help navigate the bills, thanks not only to Dawg Nation, but the wider community that supports their mission.
Sarah Karr, who lives in Parker, Colorado is another Dawg Nation member uplifted by the community.
Karr was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer that spread to her liver and given a year to live.
“Luckily, I’m giving it one heck of a run for its money,” Karr said.
Karr is one of the regulars that hits the ice in Littleton, despite what life is throwing at her.
“It just gives me this high for like the rest of the week,” Karr said. “It’s like I have a whole team behind me supporting me.”
At the rink, Karr is never without a smile. She resonates with friendliness and loves to talk with everyone who is skating, usually causing her to be one of the last players to leave the arena as everyone is clearing out.
Recently, Karr went to a Colorado Avalanche game with Dawg Nation. Team legend and now President of Hockey Operations Joe Sakic spent an entire period in a suite talking with Karr and everyone else, listening to all the stories about how hockey can heal.
Richardson reflects on what the organization has grown into. It is constantly planning, giving, helping families and communities, he said.
“We didn’t envision that we would be tied into [helping] handicapped children and adults and veterans and blind hockey players,” Richardson said. “No one, including myself, could have seen this, and last year alone we were able to hand out checks around $900,000 in one year.”
And, thanks to people like Donnelly, differences are being made on the ice.
The early-morning ice time Dawg Nation gets can be a bit daunting, but one person drives the rest to be there: Van Stone.
Stone suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2018. He now faces a slew of struggles, whether it is speech, motor skills, or navigating everyday life. He was told by doctors that he would never be able to play hockey again, but he wasn’t ready to give up. Stone, with the help of the Dawgs, proved those doctors wrong.
“This is one of the only places he can go where he is just one of the guys,” Donnelly said.
While dealing with his own struggles, Donnelly will still go out of his way to help others. It’s bigger than one person, he explained.
“What we created was a place where you can go when you know you want to help,” Richardson said.
And Dawg Nation isn’t finished either. There is a bigger goal still on the horizon: a $64 million arena with three sheets of ice that anyone — disabled or not — can access. It would be one of the only facilities like it in the country. This is still years in the making, but the group is determined to see it through.
A place where Dawg Nation can call home. Where players can go to escape the hard times and enjoy the game that brings them all together. Somewhere where people like Richardson and Donnelly can go to positively affect the lives of hundreds who need to be uplifted.
As of February, Donnelly was moved up to number one on the heart transplants list.
For a month and a half, all he could do was wait with the Dawg Nation family behind him. In April, he got the call he was waiting for. The next morning he was in the hospital. Donnelly got his heart.
“I can’t wait to slide him the puck and watch that one-timer hit the back of the net for the first time with his new heart,” Richardson said with a smile.
Video by Max House, University of Colorado Boulder News Corps. For more information about Dawg Nation and how you can help, visit https://www.dawgnation.org/.
This story via University of Colorado Boulder News Corps, part of a collaboration in spring of 2023 with Colorado Community Media.