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Hockey For A Cause

UMD teams fight for Make-A-Wish, mental health causes.

Will Francis on the bench with the UMD Bulldogs. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Charitable causes mean different things to different institutions, but none mean as much as this weekend’s joint projects by the UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams.

The presence of junior defenseman Will Francis amplifies this weekend’s annual Make-A-Wish campaign to help kids fight cancer. The women’s hockey series against Bemidji State will couple with the men to carry the clout of Sophie’s Squad on Saturday’s doubleheader to raise awareness for mental health — a movement started last year by UMD senior Gabbie Hughes.

It has become trendy for virtually every cause in search of a successful connection to latch itself onto a successful college athletic program in hopes of making an even greater social impact. In the case of college hockey, nobody has made a more intrinsic partnership than the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Not that it was all by perfect design. For example, the men’s hockey team has had a connection for several years with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and to do their part, the Bulldogs have joined eacah year with a selected youngster who is hoping to conquer cancer and get back to a normal life.

“I remember doing that my first two years here,” said Francis, who added that he remembered the interaction and how he thought it was a true inspiration for the kids involved.

But Francis never imagined he would personally end up as a cancer victim playing the other end of that connection.

Word is that the UMD hockey program has been one of the most beneficial for Make-A-Wish anywhere, and this weekend is UMD’s annual Make-A-Wish series, as the Bulldogs return from holiday break to face Colorado College at AMSOIL Arena.

Will Francis went from Centennial High School to Cedar Rapids in the USHL to UMD. He was also selected in the 2019 NHL Draft by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Back with the Bulldogs
Francis, a defenseman and a 6-foot-5, 211-pound giant — was stricken with leukemia, which knocked him out of the chance make the Bulldogs roster as a regular. After a year off, his treatment succeeded and he was given a clean bill of health after battling through chemotherapy which left him weakened but no less optimistic about coming back.

He was welcomed back this past fall after working tirelessly to regain his strength and abilities. But at the height of his optimism, the leukemia returned, and he was back in treatment.

“I had been working out with some Stanley Cup champions and a lot of big-time players,” Francis said. “Last time, I only had chemotherapy. This time, they did some things with immune-therapy. I feel really good, I’ve had good workouts in the gym, and I’ve been looking forward to rejoining the team.”

Francis rejoined the Bulldogs last weekend for their exhibition game at St. Thomas, and he was named to start the game. Though he played only a few shifts after blocking a puck on his knee on his first turn on the ice.

He also returned to Duluth to resume school, but announced that he has decided to take the rest of the season off as a red-shirt, which will give him two more full seasons of NCAA varsity participation.

“Last Saturday, I wanted to get out there and have some fun,” Francis said. “I didn’t have to block a shot on my first shift. It meant a lot to me. I don’t think I’ve ever tapped my stick to honor an opposing player, but the St. Thomas guys had heard all about my situation and they did that. I didn’t expect that. It meant a lot to me.

“For me, personally, and for my family and the team culture here, I made the decision to red-shirt. Inside, I feel strong, but I know that I’ve got more to give, and we only have 16 games left. Back in August, I had an extra gear, and I haven’t gotten it back yet.”

Coach Scott Sandelin said he is looking forward to getting Francis back on the ice, and he is aware and appreciative of the connection his players have with the annual Make-A-Wish campaign, and its unintentional personal connection with Francis.

Sandelin also said he is looking forward to both the men’s and women’s teams taking part in the Sophie’s Choice campaign, started by Hughes a year ago.

“Gabbie deserves a lot of credit for getting this program started and getting players to start having conversations about mental health,” Sandelin said.

In her 2021-22 season, Gabbie Hughes was one of just three players in Division I women’s hockey history to be named a finalist for both the Patty Kazmaier and Hockey Humanitarian awards. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Sophie’s Squad starts with Hughes
Hughes, who spent some of her summers while at UMD working her dad’s hockey school in Circle Pines, got very attached to some of the youth players at the camp. One young teenager tragically committed suicide, which had a devastating effect on Hughes and her whole neighborhood. As in the case with many suicides, the people left behind always feel as though if they’d had a chance to talk to the person suffering inwardly, they might have been able to change the tragic course of events.

Inspired by Hughes, her whole family helped organize the counseling organization which promotes talking over the mental health issues that can lead to suicide. Hughes, the top scorer on UMD’s women’s team, won the Hockey Humanitarian Award, which earned a banner hanging from the AMSOIL rafters. Hughes, meanwhile, won’t be attending because she has signed to play with the Ottawa franchise in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League.

“We watched how the whole thing affected Gabbie,” said UMD coach Maura Crowell. “Her goal was to make Sophie’s Squad get established to help anybody who might be in need of talking about how you’re feeling and your mental health. Watching Gabbie go through the tragedy of a young woman who took her own life, our team came together off that to support Gabbie. But we saw the dark side of it, too.

“We realize now that we can do things differently, and having conversations about how you feel is the first thing.”

The UMD-Bemidji State games are not only big attractions for Sophie’s Squad, but the games fall on the annual weekend of the Icebreaker Tournament, for young girls of all youth categories. The games will be held at Essentia Heritage Center and other arenas in Duluth and the surrounding area, and the women’s UMD games will invite all participants to come to AMSOIL Arena and get a preview look at the college hockey that might become their objective in the future.

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