NHL players hit the ice to support military kids

MINNEAPOLIS — A group of locked-out National Hockey League players decided to turn their downtime into a good cause.

More than 30 current and former NHL players gathered at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for the Defending the Blue Line charity hockey game. Shane Hudella, a First Sergeant in the Minnesota Army National Guard, started the program in 2009. His goal was to give children of military families the opportunity to play hockey by donating free equipment, giving access to hockey camps and raising money to help defer the cost of association fees.

Defending the Blue Line previously held two similar charity games in the Twin Cities since 2009. With the NHL season currently locked out, it was Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise who approached Hudella with the idea to play another one. The result was an estimated 3,000 fans at Mariucci Arena who helped raise money for the non-profit organization.

“It was an awesome night. For an event that was put together on pretty short notice, I think the guys had a blast,” Hudella said. “(I’m) just really humbled by all these pro athletes coming out to support our cause and taking an evening off to support military kids.”

Last year’s event in Minneapolis was held at Ridder Arena, the home of the Gophers women’s hockey team. Sunday’s game moved next door to Mariucci Arena, where the Minnesota men’s program plays its home games.

On the ice Sunday were several former Gophers who knew the rink very well. Among them was Islanders forward Kyle Okposo, who played for Minnesota before turning pro. He scored the first two goals for Team Air Force, much like he did during his days with the Gophers. Assisting on those goals? His former Gophers teammate, current Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler. Okposo finished the game as the leading scorer with a hat trick.

“That was nice, a nice little homecoming,” Okposo said. “I think that was the last time I skated on this ice, my last game here (with the Gophers). It was fun. It was good to be out there playing a game with some people in the stands and the scoreboard turned on.”

Of course, many of the fans in attendance came to see players from the local NHL team. Team Army was full of members from the Minnesota Wild, including goalie Niklas Backstrom, forwards Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck, and of course, the two newest additions, Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.

Parise and Suter signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts this offseason to join the Wild as free agents. The additions of those two created quite a buzz in the Twin Cities as the Wild landed the NHL’s two most sought-after free agents.

But due to the NHL lockout, fans in Minnesota haven’t had the chance to see Parise and Suter play together until Sunday. While those two weren’t donning their Wild jerseys during the charity game, plenty of fans in the stands were. Parise’s No. 11 jersey was also on sale at the Gophers’ store at Mariucci — ironic, given that Parise played his college hockey at the University of North Dakota, perhaps one of Minnesota’s biggest rivals.

Neither Parise nor Suter lit the lamp Sunday, but fans in attendance still enjoyed their first chance to see Minnesota’s newest faces.

“They’re excited. It seems like everyone’s excited for the team and for the season to start,” Parise said. “Unfortunately, it’s not fair to the fans what’s happening right now. But you can tell just through tonight, all the Wild jerseys, it seems like people are pretty pumped for the team right now.”

Parise and Suter were part of Team Army, which beat Team Air Force by a 9-7 final after a 7-7 tie in regulation led to a shootout. But Sunday’s game wasn’t about the final score. While it was nice for these locked-out NHLers to get back on the ice, Sunday’s game was about supporting a good cause.

“They’ve put their neck on the line for our country. To support people that have made the ultimate sacrifice and really defended our freedom is always something that you want to try to support and try to help,” Wheeler said. “If we can do that in a small way by playing a charity hockey game, then so be it. Any time we can help people that have done great things for America, it’s a no-brainer.”

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