Earlier this month, the National Hockey League (NHL) announced it is expanding its Hockey is for Everyone campaign to become a year-round initiative. The decision was fitting not only because hockey should always be made available to everyone but because the hockey community is already making it a constant focus.
Here are three stories from Minnesota showcasing kids, teams and communities who have made an effort to ensure everyone has a chance to play this great game, and that current players understand hockey is much more than just a game.
One More Trojan
Carter Tupy is a huge hockey fan, largely thanks to attending Minnesota Wild games with his dad. Having been born with cerebral palsy though, his parents didn’t think Carter would ever be able to play the game. Then, two years ago, his dream of playing the game he loved came true as the Tupy family was introduced to Minnesota Special Hockey. Carter hit the ice for the first time, and his passion for the game has continued to grow.
He even attends games at the local New Prague Ice Arena to watch his friends play. Unknowingly, his show of support opened the door for another special hockey opportunity.
This past Friday Carter attended another one of his buddies’ games, expecting to watch from the stands like usual. Instead, the team surprised him with VIP treatment. First, Carter led the team in stretches. Then, he was presented with his very own New Prague Trojans jerseys and with approval from Minnesota Hockey, he was able to join the team on the bench for the game.
“It’s been a pretty special ordeal for Carter,” said his dad, Andy Tupy. “All of the kids on this team are his friends, grade school friends, but he had never played hockey with them at all.”
For years, Carter had skated with his friends on the outdoor rinks and wondered why he couldn’t suit up on the New Prague teams. He loves playing on his Minnesota Special Hockey team, but he wished he could join his buddies too. Thanks to the leadership of New Prague coach Seth Kulics, that’s another dream come true.
“He just loves the game so much, that I knew I had to do something for him,” said Kulics. “It’s a life lesson, and it’s going to continue to be a life lesson for all the kids whether they know Carter or not. It shows the way the hockey community can get around everybody, no matter what their abilities are.”
Not surprisingly, the game presented countless moments that won’t be forgotten by Carter or his parents.
“At the end of the game, the kids from Minnetonka, along with the New Prague kids, went by and patted him on the helmet and told him good job,” said Tupy. “He was just very happy to be a part of the team and sitting on the bench with one of their jerseys.”
“To see what a great community we have here in New Prague with great parents and people that will do something like this for a kid like Carter, it’s overwhelming.”
The Owen Factor
In St. Paul, Owen Nei is another player whose parents never thought he would be able to play hockey. Owen had a severe case of Hydrocephalus and was given only a 10% chance to survive birth. His parents leaned on their faith and with the dedicated skills and support of Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, Owen was born and underwent 15 surgeries in the first year of his life.
“The pediatric neurosurgeon said after eight months of life he literally was a miracle,” said Chris Nei, Owen’s father. “Now, he’s a kid that is actually playing hockey. He’s not the best player out there, but he can get out there and play and he absolutely loves it.”
This season has been particularly special for the Nei family as their team has participated in the Hockey Kids4Kids program, which is a partnership between Hiway Federal Credit Union, Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Wild to benefit Gillette Children’s.
“The fundraiser has really given the kids awareness, and they’ve really rallied around Owen,” said Nei. “It makes them feel like they are a part of him and helping who he is and what he has been through.”
Not only has the program brought their team together, it has given the players and their families a great appreciation for everything they get to experience. Little moments like Owen scoring his first goal of the season a few weeks ago or the team finishing third at the Fargo Squirt Invitational now have a deeper meaning.
“For us, the whole thing was an amazing opportunity and awesome to be a part of,” said Nei. “It’s just a great opportunity for kids to appreciate and understand there is a whole group of kids out there who have to battle, under circumstances of the way they were born and the conditions they have, just to be able to be healthy and to be able to play the sport of hockey.”
A little farther north, in Cambridge-Isanti, a group of Bantams also had an opportunity to gain a new perspective this year. One of the team’s moms, Michelle Holsch works at Gillette Children’s, and when she learned about the Hockey Kids4Kids program, she led the effort for their team to participate.
The rest of the team bought in quickly, and they hosted two fundraisers on a single weekend. On Saturday, they raffled off donations from local businesses during games at their arena. Then, on Sunday, they hosted a grocery bagging event. The two events combined raised nearly $4,000.
It was an incredible effort, but the best part was yet to come.
Gillette Children’s connected Holsch with a former patient who lived in their community, Jackson Larson, who had been paralyzed in a car accident. When Larson heard about what the team was doing, he wasted no time coming out to one of their games and introducing himself. Then, he worked with one of his friends to bring sled hockey equipment to one of the team’s practices.
“He came out for a day, talked to them, shared his accident and how Gillette helped him so the kids would understand some of the background,” said Holsch. “Letting them know that what they’re doing is a big deal, and the money they raised goes to very important things.”
Then, the fun (and hard) part came as nearly 30 Bantams had the opportunity to hop in a sled and try sled hockey.
“It was really cool for them to see him, talk to him and then get the chance to try something like that out,” said Holsch. “To get into it and appreciate what Jackson went through and just the different type of athlete you need to be when you have a disability. You can do it, but it’s a lot of work.”
“I’m very grateful to whoever decided to put this [fundraiser] together and make it happen because it’s been pretty neat.”