Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Minnesota Wild

Hockey Community Reaches Out To Injured Player

by Brian Hedger / Minnesota Wild

CHICAGO -- The hockey stick delivered to Matt Olson's hospital room earlier this month has quite a backstory.

It involves Alex Ovechkin, Joe Pavelski, several phone calls and texts, and teams from the NHL all the way to junior leagues called the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) coming together for a great cause.

The story reinforces that hockey is a community and a sport without borders or limitations when it comes to helping one of its own, in this case Olson.

The 20-year-old defenseman for the Chicago Cougars of the USPHL sustained a severe spinal-cord injury when he fell headfirst into the boards during a game on Feb. 21. Olson, from Isanti, Minn., was left paralyzed below the shoulders and without the ability to speak.  

Olson's family hopes to bring him back to Minnesota soon to start a long, arduous rehab process at home. It's going to be expensive, with health insurance covering some of the costs, but Olson and his family are not alone in this.

"It goes back to how the hockey community is," said Joe Dibble, part-owner of the Cougars and head coach of the Janesville Jets of the NAHL. "When somebody needs help, it's not just one of us. We're going to come in numbers and do what we can."

Multiple fundraisers have been held on Olson's behalf. As of Friday, his GoFundMe page showed $127,400 in donations raised by more than 1,500 people. Others have lent support through cards, letters or comments on the caringbridge.org page that Olson's mother, Sue, uses to update his progress.

Olson had been active as a volunteer with the Cougars, working with youth teams, feeding the homeless and even sending valentines to lonely senior citizens.

He eagerly gave back to the game he loves, and now the game he loves is returning the favor.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, two rivals on the ice, have teamed up on his behalf, holding silent auctions on special items and unique experiences, including traveling with the team for a road trip and becoming a player for a day. Bids can be placed through each team's website until Wednesday.

"These are very rare experiential opportunities that both of us agreed we needed to do," Matt Majka, the Wild's chief operating officer, told NHL.com. "We wanted to do something extraordinary here for Matt and his family."

Majka said the "State of Hockey" was summoned to action by Mark Loahr, who coached Olson four years at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn.

After visiting Olson and his family at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., Loahr returned to Minnesota and wrote an impassioned plea to the hockey community. It was published on the website letsplayhockey.com, and entitled simply, "Matt Olson and his family need our help."

"Mark's visit there was important," Majka said. "When Mark came back, he wrote an open letter to the hockey community here in Minnesota to step up, basically. That was a big help, to get that sign from Mark. We called him immediately and then things really got into motion."

That's a big reason the game Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center, the final regular-season game between the Wild and Blackhawks, will be dedicated to Olson.

Members of Olson's family will make the famed "Let's Play Hockey!" call before puck drop. Players from both teams will wear special helmet stickers. A video will be shown in the arena and during local TV broadcasts, explaining the situation and how donations can be made.

Parents and hockey players from Totino-Grace, where Olson played hockey before graduating in 2014, will sell programs. Proceeds will be donated to the cause.

"Words cannot express how thankful we are to the Chicagoland community for taking us in and treating us like family," Olson's parents, Doug and Sue, said in a statement released this week. "The love and support has been nothing short of amazing. We would be remiss if we didn't thank the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks. On the ice there is a rivalry, but the two organizations have come together and rallied behind his cause."

More than two organizations came together to the get the stick to Olson.

"I asked his family, 'Who is Matt's favor player in the NHL?'" Dibble said. "When they said, 'Ovechkin,' I said to myself, 'Wow, this is going to be tough.'"

Dibble didn't waste time. He reached out to San Jose Sharks forward Pavelski, a part owner of the Janesville Jets.

The Capitals were heading to Chicago on Feb. 28 for a game against the Blackhawks, and Pavelski was boarding the Sharks' plane bound for Vancouver. He asked teammate and former Capital Joel Ward for assistance. Ward reached out to Washington's equipment staff, which led to Ovechkin being told about Olson and then signing the stick, along with the message: "To Matt: Stay strong. Best wishes."

Pavelski then sent a text to Andrew Desjardins, a former Sharks teammate who was traded to the Blackhawks last season. Desjardins agreed to deliver Ovechkin's stick to Olson. He was joined by Chicago teammate Andrew Shaw.

The stick wasn't the only gift they brought. They also gave Olson a signed Blackhawks home jersey with his name and No. 3 on the back.

"All the boys signed it," Desjardins said. "It was one of those things where you just feel like it's a duty to bring this [stuff] to the guy and hopefully get some smiles or maybe lift his spirits a bit."

That's exactly what happened, as the visit lasted a lot longer than planned.

Olson, a Wild fan, broke the ice by taking a shot at the Blackhawks, who had lost 5-0 to the Los Angeles Kings the previous night. Unable to speak, he used a visual communication board and mouthed the words: "What happened last night?"

Shaw and Desjardins could only laugh.

"He chirped us a little bit," Shaw said.

Shaw chirped back, asking Olson what happened to the Wild against the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past three years, a reference to Chicago eliminating Minnesota three years in a row.

"Those little ice-breakers definitely lightened the mood," Desjardins said. "The longer we were there, the more we started chatting. He was so happy when he got the jersey and stick. It's something so minuscule, but hopefully it helped him feel better, even if it was just for that time we were there."

It did, according to Cougars coach Brad Stoffers. One of the first things Stoffers noticed about a photo of Olson with the two Blackhawks was his co-captain's smile.

"It wasn't like they just popped in for 10 minutes, like, 'Hey, how ya doing ... see ya later,' " Stoffers said. "It was like, 'We're going to get to know him a little bit, get to know the family, bring him the stick and just kind of become buddies with him. I think that almost meant more than anything, just the duration of time."

Shaw and Desjardins also received a gift. They were given green rubber bracelets that read "Cougars" in yellow lettering, a way to remember Olson daily.

"It's something I'll probably wear for a while," Shaw said. "It's a sad story, but he's a tough kid. You can just tell it by meeting him and seeing what he's going through."

As the Olsons have discovered, though, it won't be a journey they go through by themselves. 

"It's very comforting," Sue Olson said. "I can't imagine doing this without all the people who have been supporting us. Trying to go through this alone, I can't even imagine. It definitely is a comfort."

Related Items:

View More