Minnesota bills itself as the state of hockey, and even in the heat of summer, rinks are filled with players looking forward to the next hockey season; however, for one group of players, this July marked the peak of hockey season.
For one week in July, eight electric wheelchair hockey teams from the United States and Canada gathered at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul to compete for the 2014 PowerHockey Cup. The Minnesota Saints, a collection of players from the local Minnesota Power Hockey League (MPHL), entered the tournament as two-time defending champions looking to become the first team to win three consecutive titles.
The Saints’ championship roster includes two St. Thomas graduates, Hugley brothers Dan ’04 and Joe ’05, as well as head coach Josh Holler ’01. A second Minnesota team competing in the 2014 PowerHockey Cup, the Minnesota Selects, also has a St. Thomas connection in head coach Craig McClellan, who attended St. Thomas.
Holler credited McClellan with starting the MPHL, as well as a World Cup for electric wheelchair hockey held in 2001.
“The league, pretty much everything, has been started here in Minnesota,” Holler said. “Craig McClellan and a few other guys started a tournament in 2001. There were teams from Australia, a couple from Germany, Italy, Finland – plus all the U.S. and Canadian teams that are here for this tournament.”
The PowerHockey Cup, which serves as the North American championship for electric wheelchair hockey, was organized in the wake of the first and only World Cup in 2001 and was first contested in 2004. The now-defunct Minnesota Stars won the first PowerHockey Cup in 2004 before a number of those players switched to the Minnesota Saints and won back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2012.
“On our team, at least 50 percent (of our players) have been on the team since 2001, and then some were added over the years,” Holler said. “As far as the number of teams, 2001 was the biggest. Now it’s just the North American Cup. It’s just tough to organize that many teams, and there hasn’t been another World Cup since 2001.”
Two of those players who have been with the team since 2001 are the Hugley brothers, Dan and Joe. The Hugleys’ experience with electric wheelchair hockey stretches back to their days as students at Humboldt High School in St. Paul.
“We would play adapted sports, and that started in seventh grade, so we’ve been playing hockey and other sports since we were about 14,” Joe Hugley said. “I’ve been involved (with the PowerHockey Cup) since 2001. That was when our team first started, when we had our first tournament.”
Holler, who also has been with the team since 2001, is the only member of the Saints who doesn’t use a wheelchair.
“Most of these guys have muscular dystrophy, and I used to volunteer at a summer camp, Camp Courage, for muscular dystrophy, and … they formed a team for the tournament in 2001 and I was the coach, and I’ve been with it ever since,” Holler said.
Holler and the Saints entered the 2014 PowerHockey Cup as one of the favorites to win the championship, and won six straight games to capture their third-consecutive North American title.
After this year’s tournament, players from both the Minnesota Saints and the Minnesota Selects returned to their teams in the MPHL to compete for yet another championship, this time on a more local level. The MPHL holds bi-weekly games for all four teams in the league, and the season runs from May to September, complete with weekly stats, team uniforms and MVP awards. However, Holler said the individual awards aren’t what keep players coming back year after year.
“It’s the competition. It’s something that (players) can do being confined to a wheelchair. Even some people who can’t move a muscle, they tape the stick to the chair and once they figure out how to play and where to move, they can be just as good as anyone else,” Holler said.