Whether they’re age 5 or 50, male or female, or every conceivable creed, background, or physical ability, the magical sound of a hockey player’s skates slicing along the ice never changes, nor loses its unique thrill.
Lakes area residents will have the opportunity to experience that magic and come out in support of the indelible sport when the Minnesota Wild special hockey team — a team for people with special disabilities — takes part in the Brainerd Jamboree starting 1:45 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Essentia Health Sports Center ice arena. The event will pit local athletes against competition from across the state, such as Duluth, Alexandria, Moorehead, the Twin Cities, and elsewhere.
The team convened for a practice the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 12, in a final period to hone their skills before the big event next week. Just as with all hockey players, these gladiators thrive on the cold expanses of ice, where the sport challenges its participants to blend a gritty physicality with almost dance-like fluidity.
And, just like all other hockey players and people in general, these athletes want to be treated on an equal playing field and cheered on by the the community they represent, said Coach Chad Nelson, who volunteered for the first time this year while he also assistant coaches the Pequot Lakes trap team.
“Everybody wants to be treated the same, they want to be treated equally,” Nelson said. “It’s hockey at its finest, at the grassroots level. It’s fun and it’s a good time. They pour their heart and soul into it. People need to come and see great hockey, the joys that this brings.”
The Minnesota Wild special team is sponsored by the Minnesota Wild hockey franchise and provides the logo, uniforms and administrative services so special needs players can compete with similar athletes across the state. The program is in its third year in Brainerd.
Tabitha Cannon, mother of No. 13, 7-year-old Bryton Fields, said the experience has been a transformative one for her son. The weekly practices and games are a highly anticipated event for Bryton, Cannon said, while it provides a way for her son to bond and relate to older relatives he admires.
Cannon said it all started with a Facebook ad she saw online. She saw it as a fantastic opportunity for Bryton, who’s an avid hockey fan and suffers from epilepsy, to take part in a engaging and supportive sport environment.
“It is the best thing for him. He loves it,” Tabitha said while she cheered her son on from the stands at the Civic Center. “He wakes up every day — ‘Is there hockey today, mom?’ It’s a life saver. He can’t play hockey in the standard league, so when I heard of the special leagues, I got excited.”
From his perspective as a coach, Nelson said often his job is to create a game that caters — and challenges — its participants, each to their own levels of comfort and ability on the ice. Sometimes, that’s about playing higher A-level players in a way that makes each practice a reward experience or substituting players to make blowout matches more competitive. On the other hand, it’s about growth and helping players work through fears and anxieties.
Nelson said it’s about building a team that’s large enough to provide the kind of experience that’s best for kids. Nelson said he’s looking to create a community focus on the Minnesota Wild special team that matches Duluth, which has a well-established fan base, and to increase the number of participants to twice or three times as large as it now — particularly, he said, if they can convince special needs floor hockey players to hop on the ice.
“We have about 10 kids on our team this year, and what you’re seeing is that we want to get more players involved,” Nelson said. “We have kids of all capacities … and, for just $150 a year, these kids can come out and skate, take part in a team, and have fun. Anybody can play. We adapt to them. We need more kids to come out and join the players we’ve got.”
That was a strong point of emphasis for the coach, who iterated often that the sport has room to grow, and should, for the sake of its players and the community at large.
“If you know somebody, or have somebody in your family that might benefit from this on a social level,” Nelson said. “We need people to come and experience this and to recommend new players so we can double or triple our size to get the name we need to be.”
For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/2QNZ4Al.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Chad Nelson was the coach of the Brainerd High School track and field team. That version also erroneously misstated the starting time of the Brainerd Jamboree and how long the event has been hosted by the Brainerd Civic Center. The Dispatch regrets these errors.