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Amsoil Arena hosts Hockey Hits Back doubleheader for Sophie's Squad when UMD battles St. Thomas, Denver

Saturday's conference games against the Tommies at 3 p.m. and Pioneers at 7:07 p.m. will help raise funds and awareness for mental health issues impacting student-athletes from youth to college.

Women's hockey players compete in game at Amsoil Arena
Minnesota Duluth forward Gabbie Hughes (17) carries an armful of stuffed animals while helping clear the ice during the teddy bear toss at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Nov. 19 in Duluth. Hughes and her family helped found Sophie's Squad a little over a year ago. The organization raises awareness for mental health issues facing youth, high school and college athletes. The organization is named in honor of Sophie Wieland, a youth hockey player and friend of the Hughes family who died when she was 14 by suicide.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — For the second consecutive season, Amsoil Arena will play host Saturday to a Sophie’s Squad Hockey Hits Back event when the Bulldogs women host St. Thomas in WCHA play at 3 p.m. and the men host Denver in NCHC play at 7:07 p.m.

Founded by UMD women’s fifth-year senior center Gabbie Hughes and her family, Sophie’s Squad raises awareness for mental health issues facing youth, high school and college athletes. The organization is named in honor of Sophie Wieland, a youth hockey player and friend of the Hughes family who died by suicide when she was 14.

The UMD women hosted a Sophie’s Squad Hockey Hits Back event last season, but this time the men’s team is getting involved. Hughes said it's big for Sophie’s Squad to be hosting an event at a Division I men’s hockey game where the crowds are larger. They hope to bring awareness of mental health issues to a whole new audience, she said.

“Bringing awareness to the men's side is definitely something Sophie’s Squad is focusing on,” said Hughes, who credited UMD deputy director of athletics Bryan Nystrom for the idea of including the men’s game Saturday. “We've had a couple men's hockey games at the high school level so far this year and we’re hoping to continue to grow that.”

Fans are encouraged to wear teal to Saturday’s games. Sophie’s Squad — which was able to make a $50,000 donation this fall to the new inpatient mental health unit at Children's Minnesota hospital — will also be raising funds through chuck-a-puck and a silent auction.

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Sporting a UMD Green Bandana Project T-shirt on Wednesday — the Green Bandana Project is a student-athlete-led mental health awareness organization on the UMD campus — Bulldogs junior defenseman Wyatt Kaiser called mental health one of the “pillars of the game” now. Athletes need to take care of their mental well-being and get help when needed, just as they would take care of their bodies through proper nutrition.

“Mental health is really important to us,” Kaiser said. “It's good to be able to represent Sophie’s Squad and do the best we can do to support it. Mental health is important to us and our locker room. We make sure we check in on guys, making sure everybody's doing okay.”

Bulldogs senior center Gabbie Hughes joined the Bulldog Insider Podcast earlier this season to talk about her return for a fifth season and the evolution of Sophie's Squad.
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Bulldogs men’s coach Scott Sandelin, now in his 23rd season, said mental health was something no one ever talked about, but that all changed within the UMD athletic department in recent years. Now Sandelin brings in mental health advocates like Mark Wick — the former St. Scholastica men’s hockey coach — to speak with his team. Sandelin also praised Dr. Susan Hoppe, the Bulldogs athletic trainer and assistant athletic director for sports medicine and performance, with being on top of players' mental health as much as she is their physical health.

“I give our department a lot of credit,” Sandelin said. “They've made that a priority. And then you see these things that Gabbie and people are doing, I think it's really important to keep doing those things, to keep it at the forefront.”

Hughes said the second season of Sophie’s Squad has already been a busy one, with 18-20 Hockey Hits Back events already scheduled. There were two at two separate high school boys hockey games on Tuesday when Bemdji hosted Thief River Falls and when Forest Lake hosted Duluth East. It’s a big change from last season, when Hughes said that Sophie’s Squad had to reach out to teams to host its events. Now people are reaching out to them.

“It speaks volumes to the group and the passion that they have for what they're doing, and the communities around them,” said UMD women’s coach Maura Crowell. “They've been bringing Hockey Hits Back to so many rinks around Minnesota and the hockey community around here just gets it and supports it fully. We couldn't be more proud of Gabbie and her family.”

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Bulldog Bites

The Bulldogs men will be without sophomore defenseman Will Francis this weekend against Denver, but get back freshmen defenseman Aiden Dubinsky, Sandelin said Wednesday. Francis suffered an injury Saturday against Colorado College in the second period and didn’t finish the game. Dubinsky has missed the last five games due to an injury suffered at home on Nov. 11 against Omaha.

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  • Shattuck St. Mary’s forward Payton Holloway of Tomah, Wisconsin, has signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the UMD women’s program in 2023-24. Holloway had signed an NLI to play for Wisconsin in 2022-23, but her enrollment was deferred a season. Now she’s one of at least four who have signed NLIs to play for UMD in 2023-24 along with Saint-Laurent Patriots goaltender Eve Gascon, Minnetonka forward Grace Sadura and North American Hockey Academy defenseman Quinn Dunkle.
  • The UMD men recently received a verbal commitment from Adam Gajan, a 18-year-old goaltender from Poprad, Slovakia. The 6-foot-3, 176-pound Gajan is currently in his first season playing in the United States. He was playing for the Chippewa Steel of the NAHL, but was recently traded to the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. Gajan made NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list for the 2023 draft , receiving a C grade. Gajan likely won’t come to UMD until 2024-25. So far just two players from the USHL have been signed to NLIs for 2023-24 — Fargo Force forward Anthony Menghini and Chicago Steel forward Zam Plante of Hermantown.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA DULUTH BULLDOGS
Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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