Giving kids a shot
In the photo: Shane Hudella, left, and Milan Tomaska fit Tomaska’s son Milan with new shin guards. The Tomaskas visited Defending the Blue Line in Hastings to trade some hockey gear that Milan had outgrown for new equipment. Defending the Blue line is owned and founded by Hudella, who grew up in Hastings.
Photo: Marisa Wojcik, Star Tribune.
A Hastings nonprofit is getting national attention for providing gear and funds to help the kids of military families play hockey.
Shane Hudella, who is heading to the White House next week, grew up playing pickup hockey at a Hastings park rink. He had no skates so he wore boots and played goalie. He used a baseball glove to stop the shots.
With five kids, his parents didn't have money for hockey gear that could cost hundreds of dollars.
Hudella grew up, joined the Minnesota National Guard and served in Iraq in Desert Storm. In mid-2009, he co-founded a nonprofit agency to ensure that tight finances don't stop the child of a military service member from playing hockey.
Since Defending the Blue Line was founded, First Sgt. Hudella has given away more than $500,000 worth of hockey gear, thousands of National Hockey League tickets, and hockey team fee and camp scholarships to military kids.
"There is nothing more rewarding than when these families tell you, 'If it weren't for you guys, my kid couldn't play hockey this year,'" said Hudella, 41, seated in Blue Line's basement office in Hastings. He said he loves the work because it combines his two great passions: hockey and the military.
In the past year, the nonprofit has set up a handful of distribution points around the country, and Hudella retired from active guard duty to work full-time helping kids learn and play hockey. His efforts have drawn national attention in hockey circles and even at the White House. The National Hockey League Players Association has contributed more than $150,000 worth of equipment, and Minnesota Wild players and management have provided about 3,000 Wild tickets to military families.
Last month, the White House asked Hudella to make opening remarks for a roundtable discussion led by First Lady Michelle Obama at the Air National Guard offices in Minneapolis. He was one of four nonprofit leader who discussed nonprofit work to serve military members for 45 minutes with Mrs. Obama.
Joey Hudella, 10, was one of two kids who escorted the First Lady from her plane stairway at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as news cameras rolled and clicked. "He thinks he is a movie star now," his father joked.
Now Hudella is heading to the White House on April 11 to see if Blue Line is one of five nonprofits to receive White House recognition for serving military families. That would position the agency to receive support from larger businesses so it can provide more free hockey gear, NHL tickets and camp scholarships. Hockey gear has been shipped to 30 states and to military families in Europe.
Hudella, who earns $48,000 a year as president, is the only one paid at Blue Line, which has about 50 "core" volunteers and many supporters in and out of hockey. The organization's website lists endorsements by 11 NHL teams, 16 players and more than 20 corporate partners, including Cub Foods, Supervalu and Kwik Rink. Donors include Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli, who recently invited Hudella to Anaheim for lunch and a $10,000 gift, Hudella said.
Hudella is a mild-mannered guy who is "very motivated to make this as good a program as possible," said Aaron Sickman, media relations manager for the Minnesota Wild. Sickman has known Hudella for about two years, since he volunteered to handle Blue Line publicity. He helped produce a video promoting Blue Line in a free public service announcement that runs on the NHL Network TV channel.
"It's hard not to like Shane," Sickman said, and "to want to be supportive of parents overseas supporting the country. It's tough to be a single parent raising kids and to have the money [for] hockey. It's not a cheap sport."
Milan Tomaska of Woodbury and his two boys recently stopped by Hudella's shop, which features several rooms with shelves of skates and bins of pads, sticks and other equipment. His wife, Julie, has served 15 years and two Iraq deployments for the Duluth Air National Guard.
"I want to give you back some skates," Tomaska said, pulling out a pair too small for his son Milan, 8. Hudella said he is starting to recycle some equipment as boys and girls return Blue Line gear they have outgrown.
He found some bigger skates and padded shorts for Milan and a helmet and mitts for his little brother. Elias, almost 4, said he'll play hockey this fall "when I am bigger."
Milan's favorite spot at Blue Line was the Quik Rink room, which has a plastic-type floor that is skateable. Milan grabbed a hockey stick and shot foam pucks and tennis balls into a net sitting by one wall. "This is great," said Tomaska. He noted that Blue Line also paid for his son's hockey camp.
Other gear recipients have sent notes that are pinned to a Blue Line bulletin board. "Thank you for the hockey equipment," wrote one recipient. "I am thankful that people like you serve our country and take care of us."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283