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Paraplegic athlete Danny Lilya embraces Minnesota sled hockey community

High school junior competes at adult level with Minnesota Wild sled hockey squad

by Kayleigh Jackson / Wild.com

The eighth annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL and hosted by Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Wild is Nov. 16-19 at Plymouth Ice Center. For a complete schedule, click here.

COON RAPIDS -- Danny Lilya is your average high school junior. He plays several sports, likes to hang out with his friends and was recently grounded. 

He's also a paraplegic, but that hasn't slowed him down one bit. 

Danny, who lives in Moose Lake, plays for his high school's football and baseball teams. He's also a lifelong hockey player who switched to sled hockey after his time in mites ended. While other athletes his age play on the developmental squad, Danny's a member of the Minnesota Wild competitive sled hockey team, where he's the youngest by a sizable margin. 

Just like many other things in his life, that hasn't been so much of an obstacle as it's been a chance for him to grow -- both on and off the ice. 

"He's real level-headed," his father, Dan, said. "He's mature for his age." 

Despite the challenges Danny's had to face in his 16 years, he's emerged above and beyond expectations. 

When he was just 12 years old, Danny drew the attention of the United States Paralympics sled hockey team after scoring 18 points at the national championship in Boston. A few weeks shy of 13, Danny was not old enough to attend development camp with the team, despite their mutual interest. 

Yet just a short while later, the Lilyas received a call from the U.S. team, saying they'd gotten an age waiver and Danny could come join the national team at camp. 

"He came back from that camp with a lot more confidence," Dan said. "[He was] doing things off the ice I hadn't seen him do before."

Every Sunday, Dan and Danny drive two hours from Moose Lake to Coon Rapids to practice with the Minnesota Wild sled hockey team. It's a day-long affair for a practice that usually lasts about an hour and a half at the most, but the Lilyas wouldn't trade it for the world. 

"Danny lives for Sundays right now," Dan said. "We've been doing it so long, it feels like twenty minutes."

The sled hockey community in Minnesota is so tightly knit that while the Lilyas were initially concerned about Danny joining a team with so many older players, their fears were quickly assuaged. 

"Being in the State of Hockey, it's amazing. There's a bunch of great guys out there and it's a really great community," Danny said.

And while Danny's football team is a brotherhood, there's something unique about being on a team where everyone's on the same ground rather than Danny being the only one in a wheelchair.

"It's nice for him because everybody's in the same situation," Dan said. "For him, it was kind of a confidence builder that there's other people with the same issues, whether they're paraplegic or whether it's from an accident or they were born this way, that they're all in a sled together and they're playing the game they all love." 

As Moose Lake's holder for field goals and extra points, Danny gets wheeled out to the field before each kick and back off once the play ends. On the ice, Danny's as mobile as anyone -- whether they play hockey on a sled or on skates. 

"It's taught me more freedom," Danny said. "Whenever I get out on the ice, I'm free of whatever things are holding me back at home or out on the football field, but when I play sled hockey I can just be myself."

Though Danny has proven he's determined enough to overcome whatever life puts in his way, the support of his parents, teammates and the rest of the Minnesota hockey community definitely makes it easier. 

"It's really cool because in hockey everybody is like me, whereas in football I'm kind of different compared to everyone else," Danny said. "It's really cool to be able to have a sport and community where everybody's just like you." 

And that, the Lilyas agree, is what makes sled hockey in Minnesota so special. 

"We're one big family," Dan said. "It doesn't matter if it's sled hockey or if it's special hockey or able-bodied hockey or Minnesota Wounded Warriors hockey. 

"We come together for one reason, and it's for that sheet of ice." 

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