MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As high school hockey teams punch their ticket to the state tournament, another hockey tournament is starting a new tradition this weekend.
Jill Willand lives in Iowa, and drives two hours, each way, every week to the Twin Cities so that her son Wyatt can play for the Minnesota Wild youth sled hockey team.
“He’s very competitive,” she said. “My son loves to be competitive. And he never had that before.”
Wyatt was born with a tethered spinal cord.
“And now he can compete, and play hockey,” Jill said.
“It gave me a lot of self-confidence,” Wyatt said. “It’s allowed me to meet other kids like me.”
Like his teammate, Blake Eaton, who has spina bifida.
“It gives me freedom,” Blake said. “Gives me the opportunity to be like everyone else.”
But it’s never been quite like this before.
This weekend, the Hendrickson Foundation is hosting its first-ever disabled hockey tournament at the Super Rink in Blaine. A national scale event — with teams from seven different states and even Canada.
“Definitely hope to get a win,” Wyatt said. “But also grow as a player, meet other kids.”
“And maybe eventually get a friend,” added Blake.
The tournament continues Saturday, including a celebrity game featuring players like the Broten brothers, Dave Christian, Andrew Brunette, Jordan Leopold, Keith Ballard, Mark Parrish, Matt Cooke and more.
“Hendrickson Foundation did an amazing job of supporting us,” Jill said.
Between the sled hockey for children and adults with physical disabilities, the special hockey for those with cognitive disabilities, and the warrior hockey for wounded veterans, there are 350 athletes in this tournament, along with 500 of their guests. All of them, thanks to a slew of sponsors, completely free.
“I think when you watch the game you see that there’s some very, very talented athletes,” said Danny Hendrickson, the associate executive director of the foundation. “But what you see behind the scenes, is kids that are in locker rooms, they have buddies, and they’re just like every other hockey player. It’s how hockey changes lives.”