The opening banner line of the Minnesota Wild says it better than anyone else ever could:
This is our ice. It’s ours. All of ours. It belongs to the fans who drive three hours to every game. Those who taught us how to hold a stick and drive us to practice every day. It is made of water from our ponds. Our lakes. Our rinks.
You know, there might be nothing more Minnesotan than lacing up a pair of skates and heading out to the rink.
“You bet, you’d better believe it,” says Tony Lang of Loretto, Minnesota. “I grew up playing hockey my whole life. It’s a family tradition. In fact, when we had kids I built a rink in our backyard.”
It was coming off that rink, on a January night eight years ago, that would change the lives of everyone in the Lang family.
“We were out with the neighbor kids having a good time and later that night my son, Joe, who was 7 at the time, complained that his back was sore,” Tony says. “It was the type of thing you hear all the time as a parent, and you figure he just took a spill. But when he woke up in the morning he couldn’t move his legs.”
The Langs rushed Joe to the hospital.
A Difficult Truth
Testing revealed that Joe had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a tangle of blood vessels caused by abnormal connections between arteries and veins. The AVM located near his spinal cord had ruptured. The bleeding was extensive.
“They had to get him into surgery right away before things got worse,” Tony says. “Joe had always been healthy and this happened so fast. There’s nothing as a parent that prepares you for something like this.”
Joe came out of surgery successfully and regained the use of both of his arms.
The use of his legs didn’t come back.
A Hockey Family
Looking back on those events now, Tony says his family has the benefit of perspective.
“At the time it’s obviously this devastating thing for everyone involved,” Tony says. “But as time goes by you tend to focus on what you have rather than what you lost. We still have our son. He’s in high school now and he’s doing really well.”
Following his injury, Joe received six weeks of inpatient rehabilitation at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul. After his discharge, Joe continued his physical and occupational therapy at the Gillette Maple Grove Clinic.
“We were very happy with the care we received at Gillette,” Tony says. “We were trying to adjust to our new normal, and it helped to have so many kind and patient doctors, therapists and nurses to guide us through the process.”
In fact, it was a Gillette therapist that steered the Lang family back to hockey.
“About a year into the process we were talking with one of the therapists in Maple Grove, and it turned out her husband was coaching a sled hockey team in the Twin Cities,” Tony says. “She said, ‘You guys are hockey people, you should come check it out.’”
“You can’t overemphasize the impact.”
Fast forward eight years later and Tony is now the president and coach of the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association. Joe, now 15, plays on the team, aptly named the Wild.
“That first time we showed up to practice, of course Joe was nervous as everything was new,” Tony says. “But once he got out there and started moving around on the ice, the look on his face. You can’t overemphasize the impact it had on him. He was back doing what he loved.”
The number of players has expanded over the years and now there are three teams in the Twin Cities for kids ages 5 and up. They start with novice players and go all the way up through middle and high school. There is also a competitive team for adults.
Their next season kicks off with a practice at the Coon Rapids Ice Center, September 10, 2017, from 3:20 to 5:20 p.m.
Tony is encouraging anyone who might be interested in playing sled hockey to attend.
“We don’t turn anyone away, and thanks to a $10,000 donation last year from the Minnesota Wild Foundation, we cover the cost of the gear for kids starting their first year,” Tony says. “If you are over the age of five and have a physical disability, there’s a spot for you. For kids who might not be able to get around as well, we’ve also got volunteers who help out with that.”
Accessible and Inclusive
The first 90 minutes of practice is dedicated to the novice and intermediate players.
“It’s really great having everyone out there together,” Tony says. “A lot of these kids along with their families are going through very similar things, and it’s just a great opportunity for everyone to connect. The kids form great bonds with onr another and the parents do too.”
But in the end, Tony says, it all gets back to what makes hockey so great.
“I think we all take things a bit for granted at times. After Joe’s injury, we lost hockey for a little while, and you realize how much it meant to you in the first place. I don’t know where we would be if it wasn’t for finding this league, and we’re very thankful to the team at Gillette for encouraging us to check it out.
“It’s something that changes lives and brings people together, and getting to be a part of that every day is very meaningful to me.” Tony adds. “Sled hockey has done wonders for our family and we want to make sure that other kids out there get a chance to experience it.”
Visit the Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey Facebook page to find out more about their Try Sled Hockey event.
The Minnesota Sled Hockey Association is also made possible through the support of the Hendrickson Foundation, an orgnization that seeks to grow the game of hockey by including individuals with mental and physical disabilities.