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'Into the Wild' event welcomes 37 students with autism to Wild practice

Behind-the-scenes visit allowed students to experience Minnesota Wild and Xcel Energy Center

by Kayleigh Jackson /

ST. PAUL -- 37 students visited Xcel Energy Center for a Minnesota Wild practice on Friday morning, watching the players skate from suite seats, touring the press box and suite level, learning about game-day preparations and even having a chance to talk on camera. For most, it will be one of the only times they can experience their hometown NHL team in person. 

All of the students fall somewhere along the autism spectrum, and an ordinary NHL game day would be overwhelming. With the roar of the crowd, bright lights and loud sound effects, it's a lot for anyone to take in, especially individuals whose senses can get easily overloaded. When their educators and the Autism Society of Minnesota had a chance give the students a taste of a Wild game day, they jumped at the chance. 

The Into the Wild event, hosted by Associated Bank and the Wild, offered a behind-the-scenes look at what makes both a Wild game day special and what makes these students special. As practice wound down, the students had a chance to share why they're unique, either through writing, drawing or speaking on camera. 

If students were more comfortable with one medium than another, they had access to it. If they preferred to utilize all of them, they could; if they didn't want to share anything, well, that was okay too. 

"Part of it is thinking about what it's like to be on the spectrum, knowing that when you come to a new place even if you're really excited and really want to participate it can still be an overwhelming experience," said Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. 

Wilson said that having a quieter chance to explore Xcel Energy Center, in a more controlled and scheduled environment than a regular game day could provide, meant that the students would ultimately gain more from their excursion than they could otherwise. Clear transitions from activity to activity helped keep everyone - volunteers, parents, teachers and students alike - focused on the tasks and goals at hand. 

The students also got to tour the Al Shaver Press Box, gazing down at the arena from the media's lofty seats and seeing where all the in-arena magic happens. On the second floor, they could shoot pucks like the players they just watched on the ice. Even a tour of the arena concourse and suite level was a learning experience, as Wild staff stopped at different stations to explain various parts of game operations and even finance. 

"The biggest need that we saw when we first sat down as a group was that these students wouldn't normally be able to spend time at Xcel Energy Center or a Wild game because there's just so much going on," said Wild senior activation coordinator Tim Groth. "Hockey is for everyone, and it's been a lot of fun." 

The practice visit was the first step in a closer relationship between the Autism Society of Minnesota, Associated Bank and the Minnesota Wild; at the game against the Los Angeles Kings on March 19, the Wild and Associated Bank will sponsor a Stock the Box event to support the Autism Society of Minnesota and to help raise funds for the society. 

"This was a big part of introducing these communities to each other so we can start to understand each other," Wilson said. "I want these kids to get that feeling that they are really valued, special members of this community. 

"I want them to know that because of who they are, we're really excited to meet them and that we celebrate them as Minnesota community members and as Wild fans." 

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