In 2003, they were a bunch of guys thrown together on a newly minted rec-league hockey team called the Junkyard Dawgs, largely because they found a great deal on some cheap jerseys with a bulldog on the chest.

“We were the worst team in the league, but it was a fun team to be on — nobody ever wanted to quit our team,” recalls Marty Richardson, the 51-year-old founder and captain of the Littleton-based group. “Despite lots of losses, guys really took care of each other.”

By 2009, the Dawgs had expanded to two teams that won their share of games. But the setbacks suddenly extended far beyond the scoreboard.

In a matter of months, among a roster of 28 players: One was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that eventually would take his life. Three more found themselves battling colon, thyroid and prostate cancer. Another saw his hockey career end abruptly from an ankle injury that nearly required amputation.

To the extent they could, they took care of each other. As the team had done on happier occasions, like marriages and births, guys passed a hat to offer at least token financial help to the distressed families. But a year later, when one player’s cancer returned, Richardson realized they had to do more.

In January of 2011, eight guys met around a dining room table to launch the nonprofit Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation. They envisioned a dual purpose: to honor the teammate they’d lost — Jack Kelly, a longtime Dawg — and provide help to fellow adult hockey players and their families who have suffered catastrophic illness or injury.

In their first effort later that year, a 24-team tournament dubbed Dawg Bowl, they raised about $20,000 split among three recipients. Since then, Dawg Nation has mushroomed into a fundraising juggernaut. The group’s board of directors now annually distributes well over $100,000 from multiple events to more than a dozen beneficiariesin the Rocky Mountain region.

This winter, the all-volunteer foundation will put on a pond hockey tournament Jan. 8-10 at Copper Mountain resort that in large part will benefit Dave Repsher, a flight nurse — and avid Breckenridge rec-league hockey player — severely injured when a Flight for Life helicopter crashed in July.

Other major annual fundraisers include a golf tournament and comedy club night in addition to the Dawg Bowl hockey tournament at the Edge Ice Arena that has become the organization’s signature event. It features more than 40 rec-league hockey teams in both men’s and women’s divisions while attracting sponsors and celebrities, including several former and current pro players.

In the midst of the tournament, a huge crowd converges on the Survivor Game, a contest involving players — and referees — who all have weathered severe illness or injury. Last year, the Colorado Avalanche invited players to compete at Pepsi Center as part of Hockey Fights Cancer Night.

Richardson, the foundation president who works as a financial director at Oracle Corp., never anticipated this kind of growth. The team he launched has expanded — mostly by reputation and word of mouth — to nine rosters entered in leagues at four different rinks.

Men and women play at all levels, from the Old Dawgs 40-and-over team that includes a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, to Los Perros, a highly skilled collection of more youthful players.

But from the beginning, service has defined the organization.

Tipping point

Andy Gerrie, 43, was among that first wave of medical issues that devastated the Dawgs. He still played, though, by scheduling his chemotherapy for colon cancer around his hockey schedule.

At the end-of-season party, his teammates presented him with enough money to do something he hadn’t been able to do for awhile — hire a babysitter to watch his three young kids and spend a fun night out with his wife.

“Even more so than that was just the massive amount of moral support pouring in,” Gerrie says. “E-mails from people I’d never met before, saying, ‘I heard about your story from Dawg Nation and want to let you know I’m praying for you.’ It just blew me away. Brought my wife and me to tears more than once.”

In fact, his phone call bearing news of the recurrence of his cancer was the tipping point that moved Richardson to spearhead the foundation. More than anything, Gerrie felt touched by the sense of community that triggered the effort to help.

“I don’t presume to think it’s unique to hockey,” he says. “But for the most part, if you play a sport where the competition can be as physical as hockey is, and at the same time be very happy to raise a glass after the game with someone who was just knocking you through the boards an hour earlier — there’s character and attitude that goes along with that.”

Richardson vetted his players not only for hockey ability, but for compatibility with a group that genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and also didn’t mind pitching in on some community volunteer work.

Danny Packard came to the Dawgs as a summer league recruit, sight unseen, on the recommendation of another player. Packard had just graduated from high school, and showed up to his first game an excitable 18-year-old sporting blue hair that gave his much older teammates pause.

Jack Kelly was Packard’s linemate. But he also became a mentor who dispensed advice — usually on the order of “calm down” — to the perpetual motion machine on his wing.

“We always cared about each other, from the very beginning,” Packard says. “Everyone tried to improve everybody else’s games. It was more than just show up and drink beer and play hockey. We really started to solidify.”

Kelly’s scleroderma diagnosis emerged around the same time Packard, 29, learned he had thyroid cancer. The Dawgs rallied to help them both.

Packard recalls nearly a dozen teammates visiting him in the hospital, bringing a signed team banner that they hung above his bed — a banner that still occupies wall space in his home. They also gave him a check for $1,000.

“Three times they showed up, for surgeries,” he recalls. “They were hockey guys — rowdy, loud — but the doctors actually loved it, and thought it was incredible all these guys showed up. You kind of become family. But they’re really good family, like your crazy uncle.”

Packard’s father, Rob, initially had accompanied his teenage son to games in that first season and grew to know the players. He hadn’t laced on skates in 40 years, but whipped himself into shape just so he could share the ice with the Dawgs — and with Danny and, eventually, his younger brother Jordon.

Then came Danny’s diagnosis, the team’s response and a father’s awestruck gratitude.

“One of the things I impressed on (Danny) was that things like Dawg Nation don’t come along often,” says Rob Packard. “It’s rare when you come across circumstances like this where people care so much.”

Meanwhile, Kelly — impeccably fit at 53 — rapidly began losing ground to scleroderma. On a hospital visit, Richardson sat with the man who had been instrumental in the Dawgs’ growth and broached the idea of a team motto.

Kelly, in a whisper, made suggestions — a few of them jokingly on the bawdy side — before they settled on this:

Play hard

Play fair

Be modest in victory

Be gracious in defeat

Kelly died in April 2010, about six months after his diagnosis. The Dawgs sought to hold themselves to the standard their teammate articulated. It wasn’t always easy.

In one blowout victory, Danny Packard got away with purposely interfering with the opposing goalie, who took exception. The two players “duked it out and exchanged words,” Packard recalls.

After the game, the goalie pointedly asked Richardson how the team could push their motto and still pull stuff like this. The captain agreed and took his phone number.

In the locker room, Richardson admonished his young teammate and told him “that’s not how Dawgs play.” He instructed him to call the goalie and apologize.

“So I did it,” Packard recalls. “He was very gracious, very understanding, and apologized himself. He said, it’s just hockey, everybody gets heated. And then I discovered he had cancer as well. We bonded through that. We wondered how many other guys have it.”

The Survivor Game

That conversation gave birth to the Survivor Game — the crown jewel of the Dawg Bowl.

Approaching five years, Dawg Nation already has surpassed Richardson’s expectations. Though powered by an army of volunteers, its leadership structure will have to change if the trend continues.

“I thought if we could bring in 20 grand a year, that would be spectacular,” he says. “But everything has been so successful that we’ll either have to add full-on staff — or I’ll have to decide what to do with the rest of my life.”

He has been approached by people in other cities about even broader expansion, something he calls “pie in the sky” at this point. But the concept has tapped into something, a mother lode of good will among people who share a common passion.

“People just need a rallying point,” says Richardson, “and Dawg Nation is that rallying point.”

As the organization’s charitable giving has gained traction, the foundation adopted its own motto: Play hard, play fair, give back.

“Actually,” Richardson says, “we have two mottos. The second one is: We make tough guys cry.”

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, ksimpson@denverpost.com or @ksimpsondp