The best things in life are worth waiting for. Just ask the Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey team, who waited nearly five years for the opportunity to play in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL.
“Each team that participates [in the Sled Classic] needs to have the support of their local NHL team,” explains Toni Gillen, Director of Minnesota Disabled Hockey. “While the Wild have always been interested, it was not until last year that a formal agreement was put in place.”
With the help of Mike MacMillan and other key supporters, the agreement between Minnesota Sled Hockey and the Minnesota Wild was finally completed last fall. Since then, the excitement around the 2014 Sled Classic has been building continuously.
On Nov. 20-23, the team finally had their chance, and they didn’t disappoint. Despite having only six skaters, the Wild Sled team won all four of its games en route to securing the Tier III Championship in their very first appearance at the Sled Classic, which was hosted by the Washington Capitals in Washington D.C.
“This was one of the best tournaments we have had in a long time,” said President of Minnesota Sled Hockey Association and current player, Eric Rud. “We brought in a new coach, Lee Costley who drew up a perfect game plan for each game. Our players executed Lee’s game plan perfectly, and as a team, we had great chemistry on the ice.”
After starting the tournament with 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals, the Wild dominated the other two teams they faced in pool play, winning the games by a combined score of 14-0. In the championship game, the Wild took on the Phoenix Coyotes, who entered the game with the tournament’s top offense and defense after scoring nearly 30 goals and giving up only one during pool play.
The Coyotes got off to a fast start in the first period, controlling play and jumping out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Zach Crane.
The second period was a different story though. Mike Schulenberg and Ezra McPhail combined to score three times in the first five minutes of the period making it 3-1 in favor of the Wild. Minnesota didn’t let up, continuing to dictate play throughout the period and not allowing a single shot.
The momentum swung once again in the third as the Coyotes desperately tried to climb back in the game. Guido Schmid brought the Coyotes within a goal, but Rud added an insurance tally late in the third. Wild goaltender Judd Yaeger made six saves in the final frame to help seal a 4-2 win and the tournament championship.
“Being able to represent the Minnesota Wild and compete against other NHL affiliated sled teams was a lot of fun,” said Rud. “Every player contributed to the team’s success. To win the tournament our first year was amazing.”
Participating in the Sled Classic wasn’t the only special experience the Wild Sled team had during their trip out east. They were treated to top notch facilities, playing on the NHL’s Washington Capitals practice rink at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and had the opportunity to watch the Capitals practice.
“It was a lot of fun to be that close to NHL players,” said Rud. “It was interesting because some of the drills they ran at their practice were similar to drills that our team runs.”
The team also received a little extra attention as a crew from the Capitals filmed both their opening game against the local sled team and the championship game. The team even received a special good luck message from the Minnesota Wild that was relayed by the Capitals’ staff.
“Between the outstanding arena and tournament staff we all felt like we were NHL players for the weekend,” said Rud. “We also want to recognize the Minnesota Wild and the Hendrickson Foundation. The Hendrickson Foudnation covered all of our travel expenses. Without their support, we would not have been able to make this tournament. We are so proud to be a part of the Wild family!”
With such a great start, it’s a safe bet that the Minnesota Wild are glad to have them be a part of their family as well. And if the persistence shown in their journey to this point is any indication, there is much more success to come in the future.
“This is only the beginning of where sled hockey and disabled hockey [in Minnesota] will go in the next few years and beyond,” said Gillen.