When local NHL, minor league and college players gathered this summer for Da Beauty League at Braemar Arena in Edina, the main purpose was to hone their skills, have some fun and get in shape for upcoming training camps.
There, however, is another component: giving back to the community, and that was on display Monday night.
Between semifinal games, the NHL players joined two teams from Minnesota Special Hockey in the Unified Showcase. Minnesota Special Hockey’s mission is enriching athletes with developmental disabilities both on and off the ice.
The pros began the showcase by forming a tunnel for the players to go through during introductions, then assisted them on the once the games began. Players took passes from the NHLers and scored against NHL goalies, including the Wild’s Alex Stalock. Ever the showman, Stalock even dropped the gloves with a special hockey player and engaged in a fun-loving “fight.’’
The event held added meaning for Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bjugstad, whose 8-year-old cousin, Benny Ackerman of Minneapolis, was on one of teams. Bjugstad, a former Gopher from Blaine, helped Benny score the first goal of the game.
“It was awesome. It was super fun,’’ Bjugstad said. “[Ben] Hankinson [organizer of Da Beauty League] threw me the puck and I just kept kicking it. I don’t think Benny expected it, but he scored. It’s just fun to be a part of.’’
Bjugstad wasn’t sure who enjoyed the even more, the special players or the pros. “That league and that nonprofit, they do a great job. … Everyone’s enjoying it.’’
Minnesota Special Hockey has nearly 230 skaters in 16 Minnesota cities. It serves players of all ages and abilities.
David Jacobsen, 45, of Robbinsdale, has been playing hockey for three years through Minnesota Special Hockey and appreciates the camaraderie that the sport brings. “This means the world to me,’’ he said. “… It’s a fantastic event.’’
Bjugstad, still savoring the event afterward, agreed.
“They have the brightest smiles and are so fun to be around,’’ he said. “To have the opportunity to play hockey and play these different sports is so cool to see. … It’s almost like tears of joy when they score.’’