April 2007 Athlete of the Month: Rusty Hagan

“Rusty is definitely a leader and is constantly looked to for help and guidance.”

– Lance Dahl, former coach

Grade: 11
Age: 17
Hometown: Stewartville
School: Stewartville High School
Team: Rochester Raiders
Position: Center-Defense

Rusty Hagan of Stewartville, Minn., may need help doing many things in his day-to-day life, but when he’s on the floor playing adaptive hockey for the Rochester Raiders, he’s all on his own — and couldn’t be happier.

“I had tried to participate in other sports at my school and was told that there was nothing that I could do.”

Then came along friend Bret Dzubay, who already was playing adaptive floor hockey. Rusty learned about the Rochester Raiders through him, and also about a summer hockey camp intended for mentally and physically handicapped students. The then 7th grader was hooked.

“I couldn’t wait to play.”

With both legs amputated below the knees though, and very limited upper body movement to speak of, the transition to playing hockey was certainly a challenge.

“I can’t feed myself or dress myself – that is what Mom is for, or my [personal care attendants].”

Rusty also has low vision, which glasses cannot correct. Then how, might you ask, does he play hockey? Through a combination of ingenuity and perseverance.

His hockey stick is hands-free and rigged to his power wheelchair, attached between the seat and cushion. Rusty then relies on instinct, more than sight, during the games.

“I can sense someone close or coming at me. I can see players close to me and I react by moving my chair.”

Rusty and his teammates’ remarkable drive and aptitude earned them a State Championship in 2003, and after a 7-2 regular season (with one forfeit and one cancellation) this season, they finished 3rd in State.

His former coach, Lance Dahl, can’t help but attest to the team’s ability and dedication.

“I was given the opportunity to work with an exceptional group of children, the Rochester Raiders, a group who had been learning and playing the game of hockey at a surprisingly high level. What I found when I met the children and Rusty for the first time was remarkable. These kids played the game with an ease and confidence uncommon among physically challenged students.”

Adaptive floor hockey (for students 3rd-12th grade) operates pretty similarly to standard hockey, aside from a couple key exceptions. The first requires two wheelchair players from each team to be on the floor at all times. Rusty fills one of those positions, and if a team—including the Raiders—don’t have another wheelchair-bound athlete, then they put a player with functioning legs into a chair anyway, to fulfill the rule. The other distinct regulation prohibits the players from running. From then on though, the rules are much the same.

“Rusty was one of the greatest kids to work with,” Dahl says. “He was always paying attention to the drills and plays, even if they didn’t involve him.”

Olympic medalist Gene Campbell, who played with the USA hockey team in the 1950s, currently coaches the Raiders. Rusty says his experience has been helpful in more ways than expected.

“We used his Silver medal as a good luck charm when we went to State in 2003, and won!”

Like most athletes, the Raiders rely on their parents and fans to keep them going as well.

Rusty’s mom Elaine is a Urology Tech at the Mayo Clinic, but first and foremost, is his main caregiver and chief fan. Rusty’s siblings—he’s one of five, with the three oldest living in Wisconsin—make it often.

Elaine and the other Raiders’ parents drive players to and from daily games and practices, organize team events—like pizza parties and fundraisers, or end of the season banquets—and even help shuffle equipment now and then.

“Of course we are the cheerleaders for the team, too, much to the players’ embarrassment.”

She recognizes an additional element to the parents’ role though.

“Sometimes we have to act as buffers between the players and the reality of the games’ ups and downs, making sure that the players know what a wonderful job they are doing and that every little moment is a celebration for the team and the individual.”

Rusty’s support system extends outside the home and hockey. He’s a junior at Stewartville High School and has a Para helping him with notes and assignments while he attends class with the rest of the students or is working in the resources room for reading, math and special education.

With his 06-07 season over and his junior year wrapping up, this hockey player isn’t rushing to the sidelines. Summer means going to Camp Courage (an activity-filled camp for children and adults with disabilities), and then likely, Team25 hockey camp—that is, if it doesn’t overlap with his senior project, which involves visiting several Hall of Fames, including the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada. On his off time, Rusty enjoys video games, movies, and inviting friends to watch ‘his’ Packers.

Rusty and his mom are already beginning to plan his high school graduation party, too. Some testing this summer will help direct his post-graduation plans, which no doubt will still involve hockey in some capacity… Maybe even as a coach one day.

“I would like to make sure that other kids know about the hockey program and can try it out to see if they like it. It does not matter what you can’t do. In hockey, you may be able to just hang in the goal area and block the puck, and still be part of the team.”

Rusty, more than anyone, proves this point and is a perfect advocate for the program.

“Rusty is definitely a leader and is constantly looked to for help and guidance not only for the game, but interpersonally,” Dahl says, who now is on the Team25 board of directors and is one of Rusty’s camp coaches over the summer. “He is well rounded and an asset to his fellow students.”

For more information on Minnesota’s adaptive floor hockey program, Team25 (a children’s foundation) endeavors, camps and additional resources, visit www.Team25.com.