IRVINE, Calif. — Judd Yaeger is more than twice the age of the next oldest player on his team, which is one of the reasons that the 2022 Sled Classic was set to be his last as a competitive hockey player.
And if this past weekend does turn out to be it for the 52-year-old goaltender from Forest Lake, Minnesota, he certainly wasn't showing his age out on the ice. Yaeger was perfect in six rounds of a shootout in helping the Minnesota Wild to a 6-5 victory over the Calgary Flames in a Tier 2 game on opening night of the 12th annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, California.
“I started 12, 13 years ago and I played against basically what’s the national team now, they were all the young kids, 13, 14,” Yaeger said. “This is what I love. This is what I think every hockey player wants to do. Just go out and play in a competitive game and have something come down and end in a shootout. Calgary’s a great team. We played really well, so it was just fun. Great, great way to start the weekend.”
Yaeger runs his own business in the food industry and has three kids, which might be among the reasons the hair on his head and his beard is littered with gray strands. While the pressure was on at the end of regulation and the shootout — Joseph Lang scored the decisive goal before the last shot by the Flames went sailing over the net — Yaeger said he didn’t feel any pressure despite the high stakes.
“A shootout really is just a matter of just trying to eliminate the angle and if they can get one under, over or through, but I just tried to get as big as I could and eliminate any angle that they have,” said Yaeger, whose left wrist was still throbbing from the first shot of the shootout. “I’m 52. I’ve got a job, I’ve got a career, I’ve got a family.”
While he will still be around to watch what the Wild do this season and step between the pipes for a few practices, Yaeger knows the time is right to step back.
"Most of my teammates, their parents are younger than me," joked Yaeger. "We've got a lot of kids now that are just finally into college, some are still in high school. I got three kids. One of them is in college. The other two are basically out, so it’s time for me to hang them up and become a goalie coach perhaps.”
The Wild and Flames are two of 23 teams that represented 16 NHL franchises at the USA Sled Hockey Classic. Just like Yaeger, there were inspiring stories everywhere.
In Tier 5, Casey Bellofatto, a 28-year-old native of the Washington, D.C., area now living in Denver, plays for the Colorado Avalanche sled team that lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 7-0 in the tournament’s opening game. Being part of this event, surrounded by other para hockey players, brings a sense of normalcy while enjoying the sport he loves.
“I think because it just inspires you to begin with,” Bellofatto said. “You see everyone like yourself, and it really lets you know that there is life after being disabled, injured. You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, everyone is doing the same thing I can do, we're on the same level.’ And it’s fun and it really inspires you to get back into it and be active again, not be judged. You can walk, wheel or whatever down the hall and no one’s like looking at you. No one’s acting weird or on edge. We all get it.”
For Kevin Hanusin, that meant a 4 a.m. wakeup call Thursday to catch a flight from Chicago. He and his Blackhawks teammates arrived following a four-hour flight and played a pretty good brand of hockey despite the two-hour time difference from the Midwest and the long day of traveling.
“You’re not eating right and you’re not hydrating right,” said Hanusin, who lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, and turns 51 next week. “But we played pretty good after that.”
Hanusin was a big part of that, assisting the game’s final goal and scoring another.
Playing in this tournament is special to Hanusin for a few reasons, including the NHL’s role. All the teams wear jerseys representing their NHL teams. Also, playing at venues such as Great Park Ice allows people who might not normally watch the sport to get a glimpse of what sled hockey players can do. A great deal of the spectators had either just finished or were waiting for their time on the ice as figure skating sessions were taking place.
“I think it’s [an important event] because it does get a lot of exposure,” Hanusin said. “The Ducks, especially this time, they’re doing a really good job of promoting it. You had Sarah [Bettencourt] dropping the puck at the game the other day and things like that. And because it’s affiliated with the NHL, we get a lot of exposure and people come out and watch it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.