USA Hockey Paralympic team practices in Mitchell brings excitement, opportunity

Jan. 12—MITCHELL — A gold medal-winning hockey team will be practicing at the Mitchell Activities Center next week.

The USA Hockey Paralympic team is making its first trip to South Dakota, partaking in four days of practice from Wednesday, Jan. 17 through Saturday, Jan. 20. The event will culminate with a friendly scrimmage against the Siouxland Sled Hockey program on Saturday.

Through its travels, the national team's been promoting the game of sled hockey while visiting new cities across the country. Former Mitchell Marlins president Dave Tronnes had requested the team to visit Mitchell for several years before USAH Disabled Section Director Dan Brennan finally agreed to fulfill his request and bring the team to Mitchell. The event has the hockey community in the city and state excited to welcome world-class athletes.

"It's such a huge thing for the state of South Dakota and a big thing for Mitchell," said Tronnes, who also serves on the USA Hockey Membership Council for the North Plains district. "If you want to talk to an Olympian, there's gonna be a whole team here. We're going make it a great event for them and make it easy to come here and practice."

The team will also bring its historical pedigree into town as well. Since 1994, when sled hockey was added to the Paralympic Games, the U.S. has won five gold medals and six World Para Ice Hockey championships. Its most recent gold medal came at the 2023 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, where the U.S. defeated Canada in the gold medal game 6-1.

For the Siouxland sled hockey teams, the chance to share the ice and scrimmage with Paralympians has everyone on the squad looking forward to returning to Mitchell. Members of the team practiced at the Mitchell Activities Center during the Mitchell Marlins' Pink the Rink event on Jan. 6.

"All of our players are super excited," Siouxland Sled Hockey director Juli Duden said. "They're going to bring things for the athletes to autograph. They're excited to have pictures taken with them, and just hang out and talk sled hockey with people they respect and look up to."

The event serves multiple purposes, as it also brings to light an option for people of all ages with disabilities to participate in competitive sports or activities. The adaptive nature of sled hockey makes it accessible to anyone regardless of the severity of their disability. It also places into perspective how challenging it is for anyone who has to live with one off the ice.

"We have no idea what it's like to live with a physical condition that they have," Tronnes said. "There's kids out there, young people, who maybe never knew about sled hockey. It's all about giving them an opportunity to play a sport and play a sport we love."

"We are able to make adaptations to our equipment so anyone can play sled hockey," Duden said. "It doesn't matter what their physical challenges are, we can make it work for them. There is nobody who can't play sled hockey."

Both Tronnes and Duden have received calls from parents who are attending next week's event to have their kids try out the sport. Seeing the work put in by the sled hockey athletes has even regular ice hockey players, past and present, impressed to see how they're able to control their sled with a pair of hockey sticks approximately at arms length.

"I think it's quite interesting to watch," Marlins boys head coach Nick Lemke said. "Watching Siouxland (last week) and wondering what they're able to do with their capacities with the shorter sticks compared to what we use, and they're just firing (the puck) top shelf. It's entertaining."

Above all else, the goal with hosting the USA sled hockey team at the Mitchell Activities Center is to have people enjoy the experience of having a gold-medal winning group showcase their work. Opportunities including the one next week don't come around often, Tronnes noted.

"I want people to come out and see them and enjoy the experience," Tronnes said. "Enjoy the experience because we don't know if it will never happen again. That's what it's about."

USA sled hockey practices will be open to the public all four days from 10 a.m. until 11:15 a.m., and from 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Members of the public will be able to try out sled hockey from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, with the friendly scrimmage with Siouxland beginning at 5 p.m.