UMD student regains competitive edge with sled hockey

BY JIMMY GILLIGAN | The Statesman

Sports have been more than just a hobby for UMD senior Hanna Hughes. They’ve been a symbol of resilience and normalcy when normalcy appeared to be nowhere in sight.

A competitive soccer player growing up, Hughes’ sports career was put on hold when she was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2010 as a junior at Lourdes High School in Rochester, MN.

When the tumor in her hip didn’t respond to 10 rounds of chemotherapy, amputation became a reality for Hughes.

Hughes never thought she would play sports again after losing her leg to cancer. After coming to UMD as a freshman in 2012, she found sled hockey and it’s been a constant in her life ever since.

“I think growing up and always playing in a competitive sport and then just having to stop, I think I just wanted to do it again and stay active,” Hughes said. “I’ve always been one that likes to work out and stay fit, and it was kind of just a fun way to do it.”

Fellow UMD senior Ezra McPhail, who lost function of his legs after going head first into the boards in a junior hockey game, introduced sled hockey to Hughes after meeting her freshman year.

“It was during welcome week and we were trying to find an elevator,” McPhail recalled, of their initial meeting.

“He came up to me and asked if I ever thought about playing hockey, and I was like ‘are you joking?’ We were both sitting there in wheelchairs,” Hughes said.

She decided to try it out, driving down to the Twin Cities with McPhail to practice with the Minnesota Wild sled hockey team, a team sponsored by the National Hockey League franchise of the same name.

The team is made up of people with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. They play in tournaments against other teams sponsored by National Hockey League, and also in local fundraisers.

The brand of hockey they play is essentially the same game in terms of rules.

However, in sled hockey skaters move around the ice on a metal sled with blades on the bottom, propelling themselves with sharp edges on the end of their sticks.

Hughes joined the team in 2012. Four years later, she and McPhail still drive down Interstate 35 every Sunday for practice.

Sled hockey gives them the opportunity to be an athlete and part of a team again.

“You get sick and tired of hearing it, and I’m sure she gets it a lot, like ‘oh how inspirational’ kind of thing, “ McPhail said. “That’s what’s nice, to get around a bunch of people that are just like yeah whatever, you’re just one of the teammates.”

The team is made up of people from 14 to over 50 years of age, but Hughes is the only woman on the team. Even so, she is able to find common ground with her teammates.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but I love it. I mean, they’re all kind of like big brothers to me,” Hughes said.

Depending on where she winds up after graduating from UMD this spring, Hughes said she wants to try and make the USA women’s paralympic sled hockey team.

“It’s just been a really positive thing, I didn’t know that there was a whole other way to play hockey,” Hughes said. The Minnesota Wild sled hockey team will be in town this weekend for the Hockey Day Minnesota festivities, taking the ice at Bayfront Park at 4 p.m. Saturday for an intrasquad scrimmage.

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