Shane Hudella lives in the State of Hockey, born and raised in Hastings, Minn.
He and his wife have a growing family -- they are two children short of icing their own hockey team. While still in high school, Hudella enlisted in the National Guard and has now served in the military for 22 years, a career that includes deployment in Operation Desert Storm and training missions overseas. He took up playing hockey in his teens and now competes on the National Guard team -- with a championship to his credit -- in addition to rooting for the hometown Wild.
To say Hudella is just another hockey fan/player/dad is way off the mark. A self-described fanatic with altruistic values, it's his desire to help his fellow soldiers that has Hudella working long hours that rival a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Hudella, 39, is the co-founder and president of Defending the Blue Line, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization created by soldiers with the goal of keeping hockey alive for the children of our nation's military heroes. Hudella and his colleagues accomplish that mission statement by running camps and special events, as well as providing free equipment and financial assistance for registration fees and other costs associated with hockey.
"I have a number of other full-time colleagues in the Minnesota National Guard, and there's a group of us that are hockey fanatics," Hudella told NHL.com during a break from his busy schedule. "The majority have been deployed multiple times since 9-11, and myself and the core group, all of us buddies and peers on a hectic schedule, wondered what happens to kids and hockey when their parents go away.
"I have four boys, three in hockey programs, and my wife would have a super tough time the next time I'm tapped to go somewhere."
It's an admirable gesture on Hudella's part, wanting children to enjoy hockey while the stress of military life turns parents into soldiers. Minnesota has done more than its part in supplying talent to the NHL, and with hockey so popular and leagues available at so many age levels, the mission of Defending the Blue Line was and never will be developing the NHL's next 50-goal scorer. But if it happens, great!
Wild TV: Wild Visits Camp Ripley
Brent Burns, Craig Leipold and other members of the Wild at the time visit Minnesota National Guard soldiers
"The big part of it is, A) helping military families with struggles and obstacles when parents are deployed," Hudella said. "Say a mom has been deployed in the last couple of years, and the dad is not in the military. All of a sudden he finds himself at home, a single dad for the first time in his life with three or four kids. There are ways we can help out financially with the cost for the gear, making sure the kids stay plugged in with their hockey program, and keep them interested. It's a great way to get the stress and worries out of their mind.
"(And) B) are the smiles we get, the thank you's. Last season we got 500-plus military family members together to attend a Wild game. For me, it tells me that for brief periods of time we got to take away the worries and stress of deployment and parents being gone."
The spark that led to the Wild outing, and ultimately the legitimization of Defending the Blue Line, came from defenseman Brent Burns.
"On the National Guard side of things, we are heavy into community partnership," Hudella said. "Because of that involvement, we brought in a group of players and management, owner Craig Leipold, from the Wild, and they wanted to observe training with us for a day, out in the field with some soldiers. Brent went along on that trip. His grandfather and great-grandfather were soldiers in the Canadian military. That relationship blossomed between him and the National Guard. Defending the Blue Line was in the process of being built at the time … it all came together for everybody."
Burns was eager to help military families, so he purchased a suite at Xcel Energy Center with the express purpose of filling it with soldiers and their children. The group became known as Burnzie's Battalion.
"With my grandfather and great-grandfather both having been in the military, I have a great appreciation and respect for the sacrifices our service members make to defend our freedom everyday," Burns said in a statement. "I think Defending the Blue Line is doing a great job of taking care of military families by helping out with equipment and other costs related to hockey, while the camps from the Herb Brooks Foundation will allow many more deserving kids to play the game."
From a grassroots good-will gesture, Defending the Blue Line turned into a full-fledged incorporated non-profit shortly before the 2009-10 season. Hudella and his colleagues now have office space in Hastings, approximately 20 miles southeast of St. Paul.
"We're all volunteers, but we do not staff it every day," Hudella said of the office he visits seven days a week, typically after completing his shift at the National Guard base. It is at the office where soldiers come to outfit their children with hockey gear (made possible by George Parros of Anaheim and the NHL Players' Association) in the evenings. If Hudella gets a request outside of Minnesota, he'll do his best to ship the equipment. The children are allowed to keep the equipment with the simple promise that they'll return the gear when they outgrow it. The equipment will then be passed on to another child.
"Last night I had a soldier and his 8-year-old goalie drive 3 1/2 hours through severe weather to come in and get his first set of brand-new Reebok goalie equipment," Hudella said. "They were there for a half hour and then turned around and drove all the way back. The kid was just cute as a button. He is attending a camp next week put on by the Waterloo Black Hawks (of the United States Hockey League), made possible for us by the Herb Brooks Foundation. He was smiles from the time he came in until he left, and he looked up at me at one point and said, 'I am so excited for this camp. My mom even said that I'm going to make all kinds of new friends there!' Man it was awesome! Dad's on the hook to deploy in the coming year."
In the Herb Brooks Foundation, which honors the memory of the late Minnesota-born coach who left a huge legacy on U.S. hockey as the leader of the 1980 Miracle on Ice gold-medal team, Defending the Blue Line has found a natural partner in charitable causes. Next week, the two organizations will operate a camp called "Herbie's Heroes," helping military families from Minnesota and the Midwest.
The camp will provide the highest level of on-ice training for deployed, currently-serving and combat-wounded service members' children. A highlight of the camp is an All-Star game between the Herb Brooks Foundation (celebrity and former and current NHL players) and the Minnesota Military All-Stars (currently serving military players). The camp will conclude with a picnic and celebration of the military families.
The Herb Brooks Foundation is dedicated to providing more opportunities for kids to play the game of hockey. True to Brooks' words, the Foundation will assist in "making hockey fun for kids and letting them learn to love the game the way we did."
In keeping with this ideal, the Foundation supports programs that emphasize the development of youth hockey players and coaches throughout the country. The Foundation also assists in providing more outdoor hockey facilities and programs, which directly impact the development of youth hockey players.
"The Herb Brooks Foundation really is multi-faceted," Dan Brooks, son of Herb and board member of the foundation, told NHL.com. "We want to make the game of hockey better at all levels, doing things for elite athletes all the way down to the less fortunate. While we want to make the game better, we also want to make people's lives better through the game of hockey.
"This situation came up, and knowing my father, if he was alive today, not only his love of hockey but for his country and the military, he would have been all over this and supporting it. We are fortunate to be partnered with Defending the Blue Line."
"This is our biggest endeavor, without a doubt," said Hudella, who expects 100 to 120 children to benefit from "Herbie's Heroes." "This camp has turned into an incredible event. Multiple television and media outlets will be on hand. It'll be a great time for families to have first-class training on the ice, a picnic, and just enjoy family togetherness.
"Part of the deal going into this is we're soldiers first. Once we accomplish our assigned missions, this is a great way for us on non-duty time to give something back to the next generation of soldiers."
"Herbie's Heroes" takes place on July 23-24 at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn. Children will receive about an hour and a half of ice time per day. At the conclusion of the skate on the second day, the rink is open to the public for the All-Star game. The contest is free (donations are accepted), and raffles will be sold to win the signed jerseys of celebrity skaters.
Confirmed celebrities are 1980 Olympians Dave Christian, Steve Christoff and Rob McClanahan, and former NHLers Tom Chorske, Darby Hendrickson, Joe Dziedzic and Brian Bellows. Dan Brooks, a former standout defenseman at the University of Denver, will also suit up. Coaching the celebrity team will be former Minnesota North Stars defenseman Brad Maxwell.
"I'll give it a whirl, so that should be interesting," Dan Brooks said. "I haven't played in a while, so it'll be interesting for me to go out there. I'm excited to see that line of the three 1980 Olympians. Those are great guys and great players in their own right. It'll be a fun afternoon."
To learn more about these organizations, please visit www.defendingtheblueline.com and www.herbbrooksfoundation.com.