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Wild Sled Hockey Team Teaches Wounded Warriors Its Craft

Minnesota Disabled Hockey hosts Wounded Warrior Project in learn-to-play event

by Phil Ervin / Wild.com

PLYMOUTH -- Derrick Brooks still doesn't remember much from the day in Iraq that caused him severe head, neck, back and shoulder trauma.

"I got blown off a building," is all the former Army soldier is able to recollect.

Brooks' memories from Friday at Plymouth Ice Center will be anything but hazy.

After showing up at the west Twin Cities rink with 29 other previously wounded or injured military members, the Minneapolis native snapped a photo with Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. Then he waited his turn to slide into a sled-turned-human-ice-skate and started tooling around with a pair of shortened hockey sticks, metal studs on the bottom to use as his guides.

"This is something I never thought I'd do," said Brooks, who grew up an avid North Stars fan and became a Wild supporter following his discharge in 2004.

With the Wounded Warrior Project in town for its Soldier Ride bicycling event, Minnesota Disabled Hockey -- including members of the Minnesota Wild sled hockey team -- hosted 30 ride participants for a "learn to play sled hockey" clinic that both challenged its already tough-as-nails pupils and served as a sort of precursor for the 2017 USA Hockey Sled Classic to be held at this same community rink in November.

The adaptive sport, offering those without use of their lower extremities a chance to play hockey, is starting to surge in growth, said Minnesota Disabled Hockey director Toni Gillen. There are almost 100 sled hockey players in the state.

That includes the Wild sled hockey club, one of more than 20 NHL team-sanctioned squads slated to take part in this year's eighth annual sled classic Nov. 16-19 back at Plymouth Ice Arena.

And it's thanks in part to events like Friday's, which expose folks to the sport who might not otherwise know of its existence but can relate to its everyday participants in their physical and mental struggles.

"It's starting to take off," said Gillen, whose group is comprised of Minnesota Sled Hockey, Minnesota Special Hockey and the Minnesota Warriors, a local team made up of military veterans -- some of whom helped direct Friday's coaching sessions.

Boudreau was on hand Friday to present a $2,500 check to the Wounded Warrior Project, the charity of choice for the Wild coach and his Wild on the Water bass fishing tournament team's donation winnings. Boudreau was involved with the Wounded Warrior Project at previous stops in Washington and Anaheim and has taken special care to embrace the State of Hockey community in his first year in Minnesota.

Tweet from @mnwild: "You marvel at these guys." ���#mnwild Coach Boudreau, who chose @wwp as the recipient of his team's $2,500 #WildOnTheWater charity donation pic.twitter.com/y5YKbugzrg

"If you ever meet some of these guys and you understand what they've gone through and what they've done for the country, I find them to be unbelievable people," Boudreau said. "You ask every one of them with all the physical problems they have, the first thing they want to do is get better to go back to their unit. I think that's an incredible thing.

"It's just so great that people who have had some setbacks can play our sport."

Which is why Wild sled hockey player Aaron Holm took part of his afternoon off to tutor Brooks and his comrades. Holm was helping a friend change a tire off of Interstate 394 in Wayzata 10 years ago when another vehicle struck him at 55 mph, resulting in the loss of both his legs above the knees.

So he can easily relate to a guy like Brooks.

"Life after a disability … you're limited; you can't do a lot of things," Holm said. "You're changing up everything you do, just about. So to have an opportunity to get out here, skate, the sound, the smells, the camaraderie in the locker room and things like that, it's great to introduce it to a new group."

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