Twelve-year-old Chase Buell has Down syndrome and is considered non-verbal. But don't for a minute think he can't flash a smile capable of lighting the skyline of downtown St. Paul.
The day before the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, Buell, along with his parents Peggy and Chad Buell, visited TRIA Rink at Treasure Island to catchup with the Buells' favorite player: Wild defenseman Brad Hunt.
Chase, who is transported in a wheelchair, waited patiently for practice that day to end before taking the ice himself ... with Hunt pushing him up and down the rink.
Hunt put every bit of his 5-foot-9, 176-pound frame into pushing Chase as fast as he could get him, but things have changed significantly since their friendship was born seven years ago in the Buells' hometown of Oklahoma City.
No matter how fast Hunt could get the chair moving up and down the ice, Chase reveled in the feeling of the breeze in his face, imploring his buddy to push him faster and faster.
"It's not as easy as it used to be. And he likes to go fast, and I just can't get going that fast anymore," Hunt said. "When I was first pushing him around in OKC, he was probably about 30 pounds. Now he's like 95. And I pushed him around in Vegas too, and he's probably gained another 25 since then."
Back in Oklahoma is where their story began. Hunt, after a standout career at Bemidji State University, signed professionally with the St. Louis Blues organization. While there, he played for Craig MacTavish, who brought him to Edmonton when he became coach of the Oilers in 2013.
Hunt played 66 games that season with the Oklahoma City Barons, the Oilers' AHL affiliate. There he was part of a Barons' Buddies program through Special Olympics.
It was through that program that the Buells were introduced to hockey, a sport that neither of them had really any history of watching.
"We knew nothing about hockey," Chad Buell said. "But [Chase] was picked to be with an athlete [on the Barons]. We went to the games and just saw his excitement and his enjoyment. He loves it."
Because Chase has a heart condition and is sensitive to heat, an indoor sport played on ice became the perfect getaway.
"He smiles. He's happy," Chad said of Chase when he's on the ice. "He's non-verbal, but he doesn't have to talk to you. His expressions show what he's feeling."
Chase and Brad were not even paired together, but they made a connection between events. Ever since, their families have remained in touch and become quite close.
Peggy, Chad and Chase have traveled all over to watch Hunt play, including trips to Bakersfield, Nashville and Las Vegas.
"It's awesome. But that's just the kind of people they are, they want to do the best they can do for Chase so he's happy and he's having fun," Hunt said. "I love seeing them. It's fun every time I see them."
The family is also a staple at American Airlines Center in Dallas every time the Wild has come to town. They attended all three games -- including one in the preseason -- Minnesota played in Texas this season.
"He's kind of like family," Chad Buell said.
"Brad and Chase have an understanding," Peggy said. "Chase is non-verbal. He uses a communication device, but from day one, they understood each other. They don't have to say words, they just understand. Chase makes different sounds, he points. He gets [when Brad is around]."
As Chase has grown up, so has Brad. While Hunt has moved several times since they first met, he's seemingly found a home back in Minnesota, where he starred as a collegian.
Life at home has changed too.
"It was my first year in OKC [when we met] and it was two years before [wife] Katie and I got married," Hunt said. "We just gelled with them. They're such great people. What they do for Chase each and every day, it just goes to show what kind of good people they are. They have such a special kid and a special family."
When the Buells come to town, they spend a good deal of time together as families. When the Hunts added a son, Colby, to their family a little more than a year ago, their connection grew even stronger.
"I've got nothing but fantastic things to say about that family and what they mean to me and Katie, and now [son, 1-year-old] Colby," Hunt said. "Before they went home, Chase and Colby were playing together and it was just really cool to see."
The trip north before the suspension of games marked the first time the Buells had come to watch Hunt play games in Minnesota. The day the Wild were scheduled to play Hunt's former team, the Golden Knights, the NHL stopped the season. The hope is that it'll be resumed at some point in the coming weeks.
If and when it is, the Buells are already planning on coming back.
Hunt already can't wait.
"I don't know what he's like at home, but I know every time I'm around him, I'm super happy to see him and I think he's happy to see me," Hunt said. "We connect when we're on the ice and I'm pushing him around. You can tell he's just having so much fun. Our energies just cross."
All photos are courtesy of the Buell family