Hockey is the sport in Duluth, Minn.
With the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team winning its first national title three years ago, interest in hockey is at an all-time high in northeastern Minnesota.
However, there was an area of hockey that was missing in the Arrowhead Country. People with special needs who were interested in hockey didn’t have an organization to play with in Duluth. Those individuals were forced to travel to the Twin Cities, 150 miles away, to compete.
Kelly Erickson and Christian Koelling wanted to change that. The duo started Duluth Area Special and Sled Hockey (DASSH). Entering its third full season, DASSH divides into two programs: special group and sled group.
“There are many other special teams and sled hockey teams in Minnesota, but in Duluth we find that we have a really unique population of individuals,” said Erickson, who, with Koelling, is the co-founder and co-director of DASSH. “We have a very large amount of adults who like to play hockey, whether that be in our special hockey program or our sled hockey program — that’s something unique that not all areas around Minnesota have.”
To help get DASSH started and running smoothly, the organization received two grants in early 2013 from The USA Hockey Foundation. The grants have gone a long way in helping DASSH improve over the last three years.
“You can’t even explain how important it is,” Erickson said. “It’s so expensive to try and get something like this going. We were fortunate that we had a lot of people that helped partner with us to get this pilot program going.”
The organization joined forces with the Minnesota Special Hockey, Hendrickson Foundation and Courage Center Duluth in getting the program off the ground.
“We wouldn’t even be here if we didn’t have that support as we started up,” said Koelling, who is the director of hockey operations at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “A lot our participants don’t have the resources. To have that support, to take the barrier down of costs of equipment, costs of initial fees and stuff, that’s a big advantage for us to get this thing off the ground.”
DASSH used its USA Hockey grants for ice time, program operation (supplies, volunteer support), water bottles, practice jerseys, gear bags and tape, amongst other things. The organization has money remaining that it will use to help fund this season’s activities.
The grants also aid in helping keep costs low for participants. For those players who can’t pay to play, the organization won’t turn anyone away and will provide them with a scholarship opportunity.
The main program through DASSH is the special team, which is comprised of roughly 12-14 players who have developmental disabilities, but can compete in stand-up skating. The group ranges from about age 7 to adulthood and varies in skill.
This season, the players will have a special treat, as UMD men’s hockey captain Adam Krause will be coaching the team. Krause, who hails from nearby Hermantown, has been involved with the program in previous years.
Koelling will still help coach the special team, along with a number of other volunteers.
“To be honest, it’s one of the highlights of my week to go spend an hour with that group,” Koelling said. “They’re just a fun group to be around. To see them get better is really rewarding.”
In the first two years of the program, the team has only been using its ice time to practice. This season, Koelling wants to get more competitive.
“The big thing on the agenda this year is that we’re going to get some games with some of the special teams that are around the state,” Koelling said. “We’re working on that and we’re hoping to make a trip down to the Twin Cities area, and we will be inviting a couple teams up to Duluth as well.”
The sled team is a small group with generally four competitive and two non-competitive players, ranging in age from 10 to 22, Koelling said. The team is designed for players who are cognitively delayed and unable to play stand-up hockey.
“The kids that come out have a great time at doing it,” Koelling said.
According to Koelling, it’s tough to find a good sled coach, but DASSH has secured one of the best for this season in Lee Costley. The veteran coach was recently an assistant for the Sled Hockey Player Development Camp, which was hosted by USA Hockey.
DASSH is trying to attract more sled hockey players to join the team this season. The organization purchased five sleds so players can try the sport and don’t have to buy equipment right away.
In addition to special and sled groups, DASSH is looking to expand this year and add a program for deaf and hard of hearing players. Koelling feels like there’s a need for that type of hockey in Duluth.
There are a lot of positives going on with DASSH and organizers want to continue building on the momentum.
“We’re really focused this year on trying to grow our special participants and increase that by three or four players,” Erickson said. “We’d also like to double if not triple our sled hockey group.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Their skates may move a little slower than they did nearly 42 years ago in Sapporo, Japan, and there’s probably more silver and white in their hair, but talk to any member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, and they instantly go back to that time like it happened just yesterday.
“I can still hear the crunch of the snow from our early morning runs around the Olympic Village and playing in those games,” said former defenseman Tom Mellor, a Rhode Island native. “What an experience it all was – just a bunch of amateur hockey players going out to take on the world one game at a time.”
An improbable run to the silver medal started with an upset of Czechoslovakia that some compared to the U.S.’s wins over the Soviet Union in the 1960 and 1980 Olympic Games. Team member and Minnesota native Craig Sarner credits the intense team bond to helping lift Team USA to its success that year.
U.S. Head Coach Murray Williamson demanded that the team stick together right away, beginning with practices and tryouts that began months prior to the Olympic Games. Sarner and Mellor both note that, “everyone had one another’s backs” and “it became one of our biggest and most important families.”
And it’s a family that hasn’t drifted, even though states and careers now separate them. The team chemistry still carries on today with the majority of the players that donned the Red, White and Blue all those years ago.
“The medal was important,” said Sarner. “But the friendships we developed and the lifelong bond we have is the biggest part of it all. We just enjoy the heck out of being together, and it was that chemistry that helped us prove that will does beat skill sometimes.”
After the Olympic Games, most of the team, which included the likes of a then 16-year-old Mark Howe, Henry Boucha and Mike “Lefty” Curran, went on to some sort of professional hockey career, still staying in touch every year via email and phone calls and trips all across the U.S. Sarner, Mellor and the rest of the squad get together frequently. Their last trip was to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the summer of 2012. Mellor said the team already has plans to meet up again this year, a reunion that everyone looks forward to.
The conversation is not always focused solely on hockey. Sarner is still involved as a scout for the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League. Mellor hung up the skates and moved on to “life after hockey.”
They also update the hockey family on each player’s personal family.
“I’m a new grandpa with a granddaughter, Eve, so I am boring the guys with photos and information about her constantly,” said Sarner, whose silver-plated medal hangs in Eve’s room. “So I know they’re tiring of it, but we all update on family life and just everything that’s going on with one another. Never a lack of stories, some true, some fabricated, when this group gets together.”
Stories will be shared by the 1972 alums and their extended USA Hockey family for years to come.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to play with and meet than that team,” said Mellor. “Them and really everyone involved in the USA Hockey organization, from the 1980 team, and beyond, it’s neat to be a part of something like that – to be a part of that family.”