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Through hockey, Northland family gets a helping hand

Tina Gjessing and her sons Nathan (left), 6, and Alex, 8, stand near a goal at the Piedmont hockey rinks. Gjessing, a native of Ukraine, is thankful for the support her boys have received from coaches at the Piedmont Youth Hockey Association. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
Nathan Gjessing (left), and his brother, Alex, play boot hockey at the Piedmont hockey rink in Duluth on Tuesday. Their mother, Tina Gjessing, is thankful for the support her boys have gotten from coaches at the Piedmont Youth Hockey Association. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
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Alone in Duluth with two young boys and 5,000 miles from home, Alevtyna "Tina" Gjessing turned to a common passion in both places for help.

Hockey.

"I loved hockey from Ukraine," the Ukrainian native said this week. "I was a really big fan of hockey and hockey players."

Gjessing, 41, was sitting on a bench in the lower floor of the Piedmont Community Club as her sons, Alex, 8, and Nathan, 6, played on the thawing outdoor rink with their friend Johnny Scott, 6. Her boys have just finished their third season as part of the Piedmont Youth Hockey Association, a nonprofit group that helps boys and girls ages 4 to 12 learn the basics of hockey.

But her boys got much more out of it than learning puck-handling skills and how to skate backward.

"They made a huge change in my boys' lives," Gjessing said, speaking of men such as Johnny Scott's dad, Joe Scott, one of 22 coaches, and Joe Martinelli, one of two rink directors.

Like everyone in the association, Scott and Martinelli volunteer their time.

Gjessing moved to Duluth in 2006 from her native Lugansk, a city of more than 400,000 in eastern Ukraine. That's where she had met her husband, who was from Duluth.

The marriage didn't work out, something she says little about. But she was left with two young boys and few resources.

"They were scared. I was scared," said Gjessing, who is articulate in English but retains the thick accent of her native tongue.

"We were not sure, confident in life. And hockey made us confident."

After an introductory session at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center, she enrolled the boys in Piedmont hockey because she lives in the Piedmont Elementary School district. The boys now are in third grade and kindergarten at Piedmont Elementary School.

She didn't have the money to pay the $100 annual family membership fee. New families participate without charge in the first year, anyway. But the association also covered Gjessing's fee with a scholarship for the next two years.

The hockey club doesn't turn away any family because of money, Martinelli said.

"We try to figure out a way to try to help each member of our association if there's a need," he said.

The club had more than 70 children during the season that just ended. In addition to the coaches, most of the other parents also volunteer, Martinelli said. They do everything from flooding the rink to running the concessions stand. He estimated volunteers put in a combined total of more than 160 hours a week for the association.

"You typically have people here from 4:30 to 10:30 at night," Scott said.

Even in that dedicated group, Gjessing stood out, he said.

"You don't find very many moms at all that would spend the time that Tina does with her two boys, taking them to practice, going to school, working a job and studying while she's at the rink while her boys are playing," Scott said.

"Most single parents wouldn't sign their kid up for an activity, let alone bring him all the time."

Gjessing, who was a teacher in Ukraine, works nights as a certified nursing assistant while studying at Lake Superior College to be a registered nurse. She sometimes would study for a test at the rink before going to her night job. The boys have had the same baby sitter for four years, she said.

She hopes to get her degree in May and expects to be able to pay the boys' hockey fee next season, she said.

The men of the hockey association provided what was missing in her boys' lives, Gjessing said.

"They did not have a father; they had coaches -- role models of men, men's behavior, fathers, husbands, friends, everything," she said.

"It was one of the best decisions I've made in my life for the boys."

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