MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the most popular draws at the 2016 NHL Stadium Series Spectator Plaza, located outside TCF Bank Stadium, is a donation box set up in front of a U.S. Army tent.
A heavily armored Humvee is parked nearby, also drawing a crowd, but the box is the star of the show. The cash stuffed inside, piled to the top, has been donated to Defending The Blue Line (DTBL), a Minnesota-based charitable organization that helps military families across the United States participate in hockey.
Watching a steady stream of people walk up to the box to donate brings a smile to Shane Hudella's face.
"This is the Stanley Cup for us to come out and be part of a big event like this," said Hudella, a retired sergeant from the Minnesota Army National Guard who founded DTBL in 2009. "It's just a magical atmosphere here."
His organization has created some magic of its own the past seven years.
Since growing into a charity that partners with more than 70 NHL players and 21 U.S.-based NHL teams, Defending The Blue Line has donated hockey equipment to military kids, awarded grants, hosted camps, sent military families to NHL games for free and defrayed other costs associated with playing hockey, such as registration fees.
Out of every dollar donated to DTBL, Hudella said 91 cents is put toward those causes. This weekend, for instance, DTBL provided military families with 60 tickets to both the 2016 NHL Alumni Game and the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series outdoor game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).
"We're doing well over $1 million in charitable giving every year now," said Hudella, who got the idea for the charity in 2008 after meeting former Wild defenseman Brent Burns. "I think in 2015, we did about $2 million in equipment and grants, so it's affecting more and more kids every year now."
Some of those kids got a thrill Saturday by playing on the auxiliary rink inside TCF Bank Stadium in front of 37,992 who watched the Minnesota-Chicago alumni game. The DTBL kids entertained the crowd before the game and during the first intermission.
"It's every kid's dream, right?" Hudella said. "You're out there skating in front of tens of thousands of fans, and it's such a neat experience. Those are the kinds of things that we can't really put a price tag on, but it's a lifetime memory for those military kids, who've struggled with their parents being deployed or some of the things that go along with that military service."
Hudella's focus now is to keep the fire stoked, allowing DTBL to introduce hockey to even more military families.
"In 2009, our biggest challenge was, 'Boy, how can we make $100 to pass onto a military family?'" Hudella said. "The bigger challenges now are, 'How can we reach more military families and how can we now continue to grow revenue, so we can hire more veterans to help deliver the mission?'"
One way is to set up a booth at an event like the NHL Stadium Series Spectator Plaza.
"I think an experience like this just opens up hockey to more than just the existing hockey community," Hudella said. "We have some military kids here, coming by our booth, who are just getting started in the sport. So, to walk into hockey at an event like this, it just shows them how big the sport can be and how it can kind of transcend more than just the game itself."