Mission: Keep kids on the ice

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2011 - 10:29 AM
  • Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

A Minnesota nonprofit helps children of armed service members stick with hockey programs.

 

Shane Hudella, Minnesota National Guard master sergeant, was chaperoning a hockey camp for military kids in Spooner, Wis., last August when he found out one of his wards was talking on the dormitory phone at 3 a.m.

A scolding would have been in order.

But, as it turned out, the 8-year-old boy was talking to his dad in Afghanistan. Three a.m. was the only time they could talk. That's just one of the heart-wrenching tales Hudella has heard in nearly two years running Defending the Blue Line®, a nonprofit that helps hockey-playing kids of armed service members stick with their programs.

"That's why we do the mission we do," said Hudella, a 22-year Guard veteran. "These little cute-as-a-button kids miss their service members and they want to keep playing hockey, so we want to keep them connected with both."

Keeping a kid in hockey gear costs from $500 to $1,500-plus for a goalie. Ice time, fees and camps add up to a burden for families trying to get through a deployment or its aftermath.

Hudella and his hockey buddies created the group in 2009. It's named after the line that marks the start of the defensive zone in hockey.

"We've got a passion for hockey and a big passion for our country and the military," Hudella said. "It's such a great way to keep the kids involved if mom and dad are deployed. ... Hockey is a great way to keep their minds off the dangers and stress deployment causes for their families."

The program has had help from such heavy hitters as the National Hockey League, the Minnesota Wild, the NHL Players' Association, the National Sports Center and players Brent Burns of the Wild and Derek Boogard, formerly of the Wild and now a New York Ranger. It has given about 1,000 kids new gear, game tickets, ice time, grants and tuition for hockey camps led by professional and semipro players.

For now, the group operates primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin. With help, Hudella hopes to go national.

'Is this stuff really for me?'

Military kids come into Hudella's Hastings office agog at the sight of piles of top-brand hockey equipment.

"The looks on their faces are just amazing," he said. "Like, 'Hey, is this stuff really for me?'"

Among the kids, the parents and himself, Hudella said, the excitement is "pretty equal across the board."

Staff Sgt. William Wilder of Ramsey didn't know anything about hockey when he began dating Andrea Giddings of Anoka. That was just before his deployment in Iraq with the rest of the 34th (Red Bull) Division. But he knew her children, Jack and Aleah Giddings, ages 12 and 9, were crazy for the game.

When he returned last winter from a year overseas, Defending the Blue Line® set up Jack and Aleah with skates and other gear, plus four days at the Spooner Hockey Camp, run by the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League.

Jack and Aleah returned flush with the satisfaction of having met new challenges. Jack got shooting practice against older, more experienced goalies. Aleah scored seven goals in one scrimmage.

Wilder said as he and Giddings begin to merge their families, he is thankful for an opportunity to meet the kids where they are.

"To give them something that doesn't involve an adult, that's nice," he said. "People call us heroes, but we call the people here at home heroes."

The plan is to create an equipment bank as kids turn in their outgrown hockey gear. Hudella said he hopes the program will draw more girls, who now make up about 20 percent of the participants.

So far, the program has limited its marketing to avoid having more need than resources. Help keeps coming in and more is needed, Hudella said.

"These kids' moms and dads do a lot for us and the best thanks we can give is to help take care of that service member's family," he said, noting that the Red Bulls are to redeploy next spring. "There's a big group going over, and there are certainly going to be a lot of little hockey players left behind that we can help."

Maria Elena Baca