Minnesota uses bye to give back

Minnesota players skated with youth with disabilities at Saturday’s practice.

Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei pushes Elliott Harding, a member of the Minnesota Special Hockey team Stingers, around the rink on Saturday at Mariucci Arena. The Hendrinkson Foundation worked with the University to join the men's hockey team with local sled hockey and special hockey teams.

Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei pushes Elliott Harding, a member of the Minnesota Special Hockey team Stingers, around the rink on Saturday at Mariucci Arena. The Hendrinkson Foundation worked with the University to join the men’s hockey team with local sled hockey and special hockey teams.

Megan Ryan

A usual Saturday morning at Mariucci Arena involves the Gophers men’s hockey team practicing hard or preparing for an upcoming game.

But last Saturday, sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly skated with a youth player from a special hockey team who held onto his stick for guidance, indicating that this morning practice was tamer than normal.

Fellow sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei pushed kids around the ice in a metal folding chair, a scene that starkly contrasts the usual smashing of bodies into the boards.

Minnesota could have spent its bye week resting, focusing on its health or practicing its special teams. Instead, the Gophers took some time after practice to skate with youth hockey players with disabilities at Mariucci Arena.

“They’ve had some tough draws in their lives,” junior forward Seth Ambroz said. “It’s really nice to get them out here … because you can tell they’re having fun.”

The Gophers teamed up with the Hendrickson Foundation last year for the first skate and continued the now-annual event this season.

Larry Hendrickson, the foundation’s executive director, has strong connections to the Gophers hockey program. His son Darby is now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild, and his son Dan played for the Gophers in the 1990s.

The foundation is an affiliate of Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey, Hendrickson said. It has three main divisions — a special team for injured veterans, adult and youth sled teams for those with ambulatory disabilities, and a special team for people with cognitive disabilities.

“It’s fairly well organized,” Hendrickson said, “but mostly kids play for fun.”

Wyatt Willand is one of those kids who plays for fun. The 9-year-old first saw the adult sled team when it played a game in his hometown Waseca, Minn.

“I brought my son, and he got to skate, and that’s all it took,” his mother, Jill Willand, said. “You should have saw his face when he put on that Wild jersey for the first time.”

His father Wayde Willand said Wyatt loves skating, especially on equal footing with his teammates.

“It’s one of the few things where he gets to compete with people of the same ability,” Wayde Willand said. “He’s a very competitive person.”

His son doesn’t deny his aggressive streak.

“I like the action,” Wyatt Willand said. “And like, sometimes I like to check people.”

While the kids learn from the best with the Gophers, Hendrickson said they aren’t the only ones enjoying this opportunity.

“The kids have so much fun,” he said, “but it means so much for their family.”

And the Gophers also take this experience to heart.

Junior forward Christian Isackson said it is fun to make the kids smile. Junior defenseman Ben Marshall said skating with the kids reminds him how fortunate he is to be a Division I hockey player.

In fact, the kids might have been more inspiring to the Gophers than the other way around.

“Some of these things they are doing out here is really impressive,” Ambroz said.

Junior forward Travis Boyd said these events are really special, because it is important for his team to give back — to the community and its young fans.

“They just want to come out here and kind of just forget about things for a little bit,” Boyd said. “And play hockey.”