In Minnesota, the State of Hockey is more than just the physical properties of the sport. It’s more than the combination of our outdoor and indoor rinks, competitive youth programs, collegiate powerhouses and legacy of producing players in the professional ranks. The State of Hockey is a spirit, too. As Minnesotans, we believe that every child or adult that wants to play hockey should be given an equal opportunity to participate and be invited regardless of ability, gender and economics.
One of the strongest examples of this spirit is evident every Sunday at the Richfield Ice Arena when the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association (MSHA) takes the ice. The MSHA is an organization that gives adults and children with cognitive and physical disabilities the opportunity to play the sport of hockey through the use of specially designed ice sleds and two hockey sticks with picks on the knob end that players use to propel themselves down the ice.
At first, traditional standup hockey would appear to be vastly different than sled hockey. But playing posture is the only thing that truly separates the two sports. Both standup and sled players weave up and down the ice and are constantly in motion. There are heavy collisions, body checks and rough play. There are drop passes, toe drags, and the best puck handlers and skaters usually work as quarterbacking defensemen. Sled players also take regular shifts and penalties are called (no T-boning and no head to head collisions).
“On our sled team we have the typical roles, too,” MSHA Vice President and team captain Eric Rud said. “We have our shooters, our finesse players, and our enforcers just like standup hockey.”
The MSHA team enforcer is Iraq war vet, Luke Schmitz. He leads the team chant before each game that he learned in the army. He also leads the team in hits and penalty minutes.
Like all sled hockey players, Rud’s story of his paralysis is unique. He became paralyzed from the waist down in 1985 when an improperly placed catheter went through his umbilical cord. His MSHA teammates have been injured in battle, by life accidents and some have lost their legs due to cancer. While the cause of their disabilities may vary, all of the MSHA players were attached to sled hockey because of the highly competitive environment. The fact they’ve lost partial or full use of their legs doesn’t limit them from being true hockey players.
In the State of Hockey, the spirit of the sport is routinely seen between Minnesota’s standup hockey community and sled hockey players as they both are united together in their goal to make hockey available for all participants.
In 2013, the MSHA, which consists of three levels (Competitive Youth, Competitive Adult, and a house team), became the official sled hockey program of the Minnesota Wild and has adopted the Wild name, logo and jersey for all of their games and tournaments. Along with support from the Wild, sled hockey receives tremendous financial support, coaching assistance, and emotional support from a combination of the Hendrickson Foundation, Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey, a sort of trinity of the standup hockey community.
“It’s just people helping people,” said Larry Hendrickson, the Executive Director of the Hendrickson Foundation. “Hockey player’s helping fellow hockey players.”
Hendrickson, a legend in Minnesota hockey and father of Minnesota Wild assistant coach Darby, has helped organize coaching, special sled sessions at Xcel Energy Center and Mariucci Arena, and facilitated monetary donations that have allowed MSHA to travel across the country to play in sled tournaments.
The communal support between the standup and sled hockey communities allows the MSHA adult and youth players to continue to skate ahead, and play the game they love regardless of the obstacles in front of them.
The MSHA Adult Competitive team recently travelled to Canada to play in a sled tournament. They lost two of their games by just one goal to a chippy Canadian team. Unbowed by their losses, though, Rud and his teammates vowed to do their best against the same Canadian team in their next match.
“We got a revenge date against them in March here in the Twin Cities,” Rud said, as a wily smile flashed across his face. Then he launched across the ice in his sled, doggedly trying to get better, one practice at a time, and was aided by several standup players.
It was the perfect embodiment of the endearing spirit of hockey in Minnesota.