By Danielle Catalano
Earlier this week, the Binghamton Senators teamed with the Muscular Dystrophy Association for the fifth annual Spaghetti On Ice. For a two-and-a-half hours, the players served meals to patrons, socialized with guests, competed for tips and auctioned off their mostly clean jerseys in an effort to raise money for to those in the Southern Tier living with MD.
“My son absolutely loves hockey,” season-ticket holder Debbie Osenni said amid the din of the auction just underway in the nearby capacity-filled Endicott Room of the Holiday Inn Arena in Binghamton this past Monday evening. “He’s turning 17 on Thursday, so this is his big birthday party. We’ve celebrated his birthday this way for the last five years, and we go all out. Each year we get a jersey, and we’re hoping to get two this year.”
The jersey auction Osenni referred to was the final element of the annual Spaghetti On Ice fundraiser, which benefits the local chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Since 2005, the Binghamton Senators have collaborated with the association to make this event a success. The players wait tables and socialize with fans throughout the evening, all the while competing for tips that will be donated to the non-profit group to help local families afflicted by the degenerative neuromuscular disease.
Monday’s dinner began at 6 p.m. with each B-Sen introduced to the crowd. Ten minutes later, the 22 players—all clad in white mesh jerseys—set to task, passing out hot pasta dishes to nearly 300 patrons at a rate of six minutes per plate. With only a handful of meals served, captain Denis Hamel took an early lead, collecting $52 in his tip jar. Center Zack Smith closed in quickly with $47, followed by defenseman Matt Carkner with $38.
“This is incredible,” said Laura Lee Friedah, district director of the Bingham chapter. “I can’t believe we’re packed. The players really give this event a push, rallying together to get those tips. Tonight is huge, and we’ve just begun.”
The idea behind Spaghetti On Ice came about thanks in part to Elmira Jackals general manager Robbie Nichols. Prior to the Jackals, Nichols head coached the Flint Generals of the International Hockey League, and one of their team fundraisers involved hosting a spaghetti dinner on the rink at Perani Arena in Flint, Michigan. The players served the meals on skates and donated their tips to a selected community cause.
In 2004, The Flint Journal ran an article about the event, which was read by a former director of the Binghamton chapter of the MDA. Looking for new ways to engage the Southern Tier community in supporting the association, the local chapter pitched a modified version of the fundraiser to the Binghamton Senators, who were more than happy to oblige.
Since its inauguration, the spaghetti dinner has raised more than $33,000. Friedah said proceeds from the dinner will be used to help families purchase portable medical equipment and wheelchairs—the biggest need in the area—as well as pay for youths to attend MDA-sponsored summer camps and cover the cost of clinical visits and flu shots (since many with the disease have compromised immune systems).
To get the patrons in the tipping mode Monday evening, attendees received hockey pucks and t-shirts for the B-Sens to sign—and did they ever. “Last year, I think Josh Hennessy juggled bread for tips,” right wing Chaz Johnson said. “I can’t do that. And then Greg Mauldin did a handstand. I’m injured with my back, so I really can’t do that. But I can sign autographs…I don’t know how many I signed, but oh my God, my hand hurts a lot. It’s definitely cramping.”
For goaltender Jeff Glass, he relied on his footwork to appease patrons. “The quicker you are, the bigger the tips,” he said. “It’s six o’clock. People are hungry. They want their food fast, and the faster you get it to them, the bigger the tips they give you throughout the night.”
Garnering those tips, though, has its hazards: marinara sauce sloshed on jerseys as players navigate their way around more than two dozen tables, near-miss plate collisions and players rough housing each other to reach as many fans as possible.
“Some of the big guys bully the little guys,” Glass said. “They muscle their way to more tables—they’re not afraid to push the other guys out of their way for that extra buck. I think that’s why Carkner’s winning.”
To make the night more competitive on the patron-side, emcee Steve Shimer from COOL 100 devised Teammate Trivia, which pitted B-Sen against B-Sen to see how much each player knew about his teammate. Audience members joined the challenge by picking the player he or she thought would answer the most questions correctly. If his or her player answered right, the opposing fan placed money the correct player’s jar. If his or her player were wrong, the fan would place money in the jar of the opposing fan’s player.
“We have a lot of new faces this year,” Shimer said. “I think they’re a little intimidated, not sure how to act around the players so I’m hoping this makes them more comfortable and open.”
In addition to the B-Sens, approximately 50 volunteers donated their time to ensure the evening’s success. Assisting the players were members of the Johnson City High School Wildcats hockey team, and helping tally the tip jars were firefighters of the Binghamton and Johnson City fire departments. The local media and other Binghamton Senator staff members also provided extra hands.
“We’re very fortunate in getting volunteers,” Friedah said. “The firefighters’ association is a national sponsor of the MDA, so they always volunteer their time at our events. And Tom Tokis, who heads the Wildcats, works for BAE, which is a big supporter of our group. He’s been getting his players to do this for the last three years. And of course, the families. They are always great, doing whatever they can in the community to promote our chapter.”
Debbie Osenni is one of those volunteers. Her son Michael is a junior at Johnson City High School and was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of seven. Michael is an ambassador for the association and attends five to six MDA social functions a year. When the Osennis learned of the fundraiser five years ago, neither son nor mother hesitated to volunteer.
For four years, Debbie helped service the meals. This year, however, she spoke at the dinner and for the first time, she was the one to be waited on. “It’s a little weird to actually sit back and watch the players mingle with the fans,” Osenni said. “It’s nice to see the whole energy itself, people having fun.”
As for the players, they didn’t mind being the night’s entertainment—some just minded keeping their jerseys laundered. “So far, so good,” says Glass. “I made it past seven, and my shirt’s still clean. Last year, I don’t think I made it this far along. The shirt was covered in sauce by the the end of the night, and I felt sorry for whoever won it at auction.”
Johnson concurred with his goalie about keeping things clean for the evening. Shortly before the auction began, he iterated his team’s stance on the fundraiser. “This event means a lot for us,” Johnson said. “It’s important for us to show that this hockey team cares about its community. If taking pictures, signing autographs, and talking with fans helps raise money for a good cause, then why not? It’s the least we can do.”