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Opportunity on the ice

Members of the Muskies hockey team in Alexandria include (front, left to right) Hannah Poshek, Isaac Thill and Danika Schroeder. Middle, left to right, is Julie Schmidt, Dylan Timm, Kyle Haack, Billy Scheffler and Daniel Bartels. Back, left to right, is Alexa Frick and Ryan Frick. (Contributed)

What started as an idea sparked by a television news story in 2011 has transformed into an opportunity for disabled athletes from all over central Minnesota to play a sport they love.

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Sue Justice was watching KARE 11 news one night when she noticed a story about Minnesota Special Hockey, a hockey league for people of any age who have a physical or mental disability. Seeing there are few team sports for disabled athletes to participate in around central Minnesota, she decided this would be a great program for Alexandria.

“Because all of my kids played hockey, I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Justice said. “I just started literally crying. I was like, ‘This is the best program I have ever seen.’”

Today dozens of athletes from the Alexandria area play as part of the Muskies, one of eight teams that are part of Minnesota Special Hockey. They first joined the league in 2011 and this year, the Muskies are entering their third season.

“When I was a little kid, I just wanted to play hockey for fun,” 9-year-old athlete Hannah Poshek said.

The team members are a variety of ages, ranging from athletes around Hannah’s age to those in their 40s. Athletes who join the team have a wide variety of skill levels but are taught how to play.

“When Hannah started, she could barely skate,” Hannah’s father Chris Poshek said. “And now she’s able to skate from end-to-end.”

The team’s volunteer coaches begin right away working with players to teach them the basics of hockey. Many of the players had never skated before they started playing on the Muskies.

“I had never been on ice, and the coach and everyone else helped me out,” athlete Julie Schmidt said. “Now I am a better skater and hockey player than I have ever been.”

The Alexandria Muskies primarily play on Sundays during the season, with their home games taking place at the Runestone Community Center. The season generally lasts from the beginning of November to the end of February.

The Muskies have received plenty of help from members of the community. The team is entirely organized by volunteers. Members of the Blizzard and the Alexandria girls’ high school team have both helped teach the Muskies how to play hockey. The Blizzard also allows the Muskies to use their team bus to travel to some of their away games.

There are a variety of reasons why athletes decided to first start playing with the Muskies. Some athletes have watched hockey their entire lives while others joined to be part of a team.

“Being with the team,” Schmidt said about why she joined the Muskies. “Being a teammate on a team.”

The Muskies had the opportunity to scrimmage between periods at a Blizzard game last season, something many of the players enjoyed, as they have been to many games as fans.

“I watched hockey all of my life, and hockey is my number one thing,” Schmidt said.

One challenge the Muskies encounter as an outstate team is the distance they must travel to play other Minnesota Special Hockey teams. Alexandria is only one of three outstate teams, with the other two in the Fargo/Moorhead area and Duluth. The rest of the league’s teams are in metro-located Blaine, Burnsville, New Hope, Edina and Rogers. This requires the team to make long trips for their away games.

“There is travel to the cities, so the Blizzard have been great about supplying their bus as it’s allowed,” Chris Poshek said.

Organizers have noticed that competing and playing with other athletes has a positive effect on the players’ self-esteem. The athletes also have the opportunity to make friends with new players they meet on the other teams.

“The first thing that we saw when [Hannah] was out on the ice is that she would make friends with at least one player from the other team,” Chris Poshek said.

Justice said one of her favorite moments since being part of the Muskies took place last season at a tournament in the Twin Cities. Schmidt had the puck and was skating down the ice when her Muskies teammates formed a V behind her to help her score a goal.

“She had the full support of the team behind her, helping her make that goal,” Justice said. “It was like literally shivers, it was so cool to watch that support of the team.”

The Muskies also host an annual tournament for the league in Alexandria. This season, the tournament will take place at the end of December.

The Muskies hope to find more players from the surrounding area who would like to join the team. They are hosting an open house and skate event Sunday that is open to anyone who is interested in joining the team.

“We’re hoping that other people from the area will get to know that we’re here and feel welcome to join us,” Justice said.

Blaze Fugina

Blaze Fugina is the sports editor of the Woodbury and South Washington County Bulletin newspapers. Previously, Blaze worked as a sports editor for the Pierce County Herald and a sports reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in May of 2011. You can follow Blaze on Twitter at @BlazeFugina.

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