Hockey Day Minnesota: Preps honor Minnesota service members with ‘awesome’ helmets

Drive down Highway 52 from the St. Paul Downtown Airport to the Rosemount Community Center, and you’ll experience the intersection of two different existences.

The congested, metropolitan banks of the Mississippi River soon give way to the rolling hills and plains of Southern Minnesota. Past the ice arena and National Guard training facility and the high school, downtown Rosemount sits quaintly with its mom-and-pop eateries and a couple aging gas stations on either side of the small district.

But this is largely a suburban community south of the Twin Cities, one with sprawling housing developments that’s home to more than 22,000 people.

Inside the community center, on a lower-level sheet of ice, worlds are colliding, too.

Freshman Ruthie Fix is skating onto the ice with her teammates for a junior varsity game against Prior Lake. Her mother Jill sits in the stands, legs crossed, hands in her lap, as surrounding hockey parents make small talk.

Half the globe away, Lt. Col. Greg Fix is likely asleep. It’s 2 a.m. in Kuwait, where the commander of the 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion — which is based at the St. Paul airport’s Holman Field — and his troops have been deployed for the past sixth months.

But despite the distance, Ruthie’s father isn’t all that far away tonight.

"It is tough to play both roles," Jill Fix said with a slightly sad smile as her daughter hops over the boards for a line change early in the first period.

Both North Dakota natives, Jill and Greg met via fraternity-sorority connections at the University of North Dakota. After college, Greg spent more than eight years in the Army and deployed three times — Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Honduras, and Haiti.

After he retired from active duty (technically, at least), Greg joined the Minnesota National Guard, and the family settled in Rosemount. At one point, he trained soldiers at the armory connected to the Rosemount Community Center. Today, Fix and 299 other soldiers are stationed at Camp Beuhring in Kuwait, moving cargo, personnel and equipment throughout southwest Asia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military’s recently launched campaign against ISIS.

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Fix’s battalion, nicknamed Red Bulls Task Force Shield, is part of the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade that calls Holman Field in St. Paul its headquarters. They deployed earlier this year and won’t be back in Minnesota till the middle of May.

"It is disappointing to be away from the rink this time of year," Greg Fix said in an email. "The total time away from seeing family weighs on all of us."

Every military family has a story like the Fixes’. Theirs just happens to revolve largely around the game of hockey.

It’s been more than half a year since Greg drove Ruthie to practice. No more making fun of pop lyrics on the radio, talking Wild pucks or conversations about making good decisions and practicing patience as Ruthie enters her freshman year of high school.

And only one parent in the stands.

"No matter how hard you try to assume your spouse’s role during a deployment, it is not the same," Greg Fix said. "Jill and all of the families deal with assuming those roles, and the soldiers deal with the guilt of knowing they are not there to do their part at home."

Things in Kuwait are "relatively safe," as far as Jill knows. But with tensions flaring in the Middle East daily, things can change quickly.

"I definitely do worry about it sometimes," Ruthie said. "You just have to hope they’re doing OK. They’ll do everything they need to do."

Ruthie pulls back her dark brown hair into a ponytail and dons her navy blue Irish helmet. Above the No. 28 in the back, there’s a black and red emblem depicting a black eagle with a red bull’s head inside. Nine different two-letter abbreviations mark the bird’s wing feathers, each representing the states from which Task Force Shield’s members hail.

This is the crest on Greg Fix’s uniform. And it’s on the back of every Rosemount High School girls hockey player’s lid. A banner with the same symbol hangs over one of the ice arena boards.

A group of booster-club parents decided the Fixes’ story required commemorating and hatched the idea. When coach Tom Conboy heard it, he was "100 percent on board with it."

"I think it’s huge," Conboy said. "For her, just to be recognized as a kid that doesn’t have her dad sitting up there watching her play and support, academic support, teenage life, you know? For any kid to not have their father, regardless of whatever it is at this point in time in their life, it’s tough — especially when they’re in a combat zone and you never know what can happen."

It’s a difficult existence. But every means of outreach — even a subtle touch like this one — helps.

Greg orated "Let’s Play Hockey" at a Wild game not too long ago, and Ruthie got to meet T.J. Oshie and other NHL players at a Defending the Blue Line camp for military children two years ago.

But this is a different kind of honor. One she puts on every day.

"I think it’s awesome," Ruthie said. "It makes me feel like I’m really playing for the unit that’s over there. It’s pretty cool."

So is being able to text or Face Time with her dad and tell him how her last game went. The family, which also includes son Austin, is able to communicate with Greg almost daily.

That helps. So does the game.

"One, it just helps pass the time," Ruthie said. "Two, it’s been a huge part between me and my dad. It just kind of helps me remember that."

After all, it was Greg who began taking Ruthie to open skates when she was younger. During one deployment, when Ruthie was 8, all she wanted to do was play hockey.

So Greg signed her up and began doing his darnedest to get her to practices and games. Ruthie’s by no means a ringer — her bio in the Irish program says her 2014-15 objective is to score a goal, a feat she has yet to accomplish — but she "works her tail off," Conboy said.

"She’s fun to coach, because no matter what happens out there, she’ll come off and ask how to get better," the coach said. "She could be easily out there in the dumps that she doesn’t have her dad."

Jill now works full-time as a dietician for Hennepin County, so some carpooling has become necessary. But the family’s found that almost everyone in the Rosemount pucks community is willing to lend a hand. If not that, at least a word of encouragement.

"All along, all season, they always ask how Greg’s doing and what he’s doing, how we’re all doing," Jill Fix said. "People have been really supportive. It’s been really cool for Ruthie."

And for the program, according to varsity co-captain Marie Griffith.

"It’s really opened my eyes up that people really do have to leave and fight for our country," said Griffith, a senior. "I never really saw that before. I always heard about it, but I never saw how it could affect an individual or a family, so it’s good to experience that."

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