CHICAGO -- Hannah Hughes thought her days of playing sports were finished when she lost her right leg to bone cancer at 16.
Now 25, the native of Rochester, Minnesota beams when she talks about how she found a competitive outlet with sled hockey.
"It's just been a huge part of my life," Hughes said after the Tier III Minnesota Wild beat the Colorado Avalanche Warriors 2-1 in a shootout at the USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, at Johnny's IceHouse West on Friday. "To be able to go out there and play with all these guys and come to the tournaments, it really means a lot.
"I know all the people out here probably feel the same way. We're all in different circumstances and we've overcome a lot of stuff. And just being able to get on the ice and be on a level playing field, despite any of our disabilities, you get on the ice and none of them matter. I think that's something we all appreciate about the sport."
Hughes has played six seasons with the Wild, and coach Greig Boubinek said Hughes is a positive team leader and smart player.
"She knows where to be and anticipates well," Boubinek said. "I'd say some of her better attributes is the anticipation and being in the right spot. She does a good job of talking out there, communicating. She helps out, does whatever is asked of her."
Hughes was playing indoor league soccer at 16 when she started having pain in her right hip. But it didn't improve after going to physical therapy for a few months, so she had an MRI: the test revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor. Ten rounds of chemotherapy didn't shrink the tumor, so Hughes' best chance of survival meant amputating her right leg, hip and half of her pelvis.
"To realize that was something you were faced with, it was super unexpected," Hughes said. "But when you're faced with the decision, if you want to live or die, you pretty much don't have a choice. And I knew I always had the drive to push myself so I knew I could get through it. But I knew it was going to be a long road."
Hughes was introduced to sled hockey by former Wild sled hockey teammate Ezra McPhail while they were students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. McPhail, who had played in the North American 3 Hockey League, sustained a broken back and partial paralysis when he was checked into the boards during a game in December 2011.
McPhail convinced her to give sled hockey a try. He also assured her she would be joining a coed team.
"I showed up to practice thinking there'd be other girls and he said, 'You're actually the coed portion,'" Hughes said with a laugh. "That was a little eye opening, but these guys have become like my big brothers now. I love them."
Hughes has also been on the U.S. women's sled hockey team for three years. There is no women's sled hockey in the Paralympics, but Hughes hopes that will change.
"It's definitely a growing sport for women and we're seeing a lot more girls come out to tryouts every year. But it's becoming challenging to grow the sport in other countries," she said. "Disabled women in other countries don't really have the same opportunities we do here. We're really hoping to get into the Paralympics like the men's team is, but it may be a few years out. But we're trying."