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The sleds are bucket seats on rails above two skate blades. Players carry two short hockey sticks that also serve as ski poles.
“They’ll drop the gloves,” said Chris Gustafson, the volunteer head coach of the Northern. “These people have all had bad things happen to them, but they come together to make something good happen on the ice. It’s inspiring. Even on your worst day, their worst day was worse than yours, and here they are. You’ve got Iraq War guys and kids who had cancer, guys who were in car accidents.”
Some players and parents drive from Duluth just for practice. Some players require 45 minutes to strap on their legs and climb into the bucket.
Greta Nelson is the mother of two sled hockey players, Naomi, 15, and Nicklas, 14. Naomi is fully-limbed, but cancer and cancer treatments left her with weakened joints. Nicklas was born with a rare syndrome that led to him choosing, at 8, to have his legs amputated.
A physical therapist at Gillette showed Greta an article about sled hockey.
“We were like, ‘What?’ ’’ Greta said. “Neither of my kids had been able to be on a hockey team or be in team sports. It’s so nice for them to belong to something. There are a lot of adaptive sports, but it’s extra cool in Minnesota for them to be a part of hockey.”
“These are real athletes, real hockey players,” said Mike Seegar, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Now he coaches youth sled hockey and plays for the Northern. “The hits are as violent as NHL hits. The sad thing is not many people know this is available to disabled people.”
Hendrickson wants to change that. Duffy is helping, working with the foundation’s website, using his business and social media expertise to spread the word.
Hendrickson has seen all Minnesota hockey has to offer. He’s won state titles, worked with the Herb Brooks Foundation, worked with J.P. Parise at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and befriended every hockey big shot in the state.
“I just love these people,” Hendrickson said. “I had colon cancer. I get around these people and I feel like, ‘That’s all I had?’ Chris is great with them, and so is Duffy. His father came to a practice and you could see the people lighting up when Duffy was around. I saw a tear on his father’s cheek.”
“I’ve grown a lot through this,” Duffy said.
“He has,” Pat said. “We’ve found that 90 percent of Duffy is pretty damn good.”
Editor’s note: For more information on sled hockey or to donate please visit HendricksonFoundation.com and mnsledhockey.org.
Jim Souhan can been heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10-noon on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org