The news that Minnesota will host the 2021 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is a brass-ring opportunity to celebrate all things State of Hockey, from pond and muni-rink pickup games to high school and college rivalries, to pro-level playoff runs.
This “big tent” is part of hockey’s great appeal. And with nicknames like Gump, Rocket, Moose or anything with a “-sie” or “-er” tacked on, even players at the highest levels somehow seem just a little more relatable to the rest of us.
The Wild-Calgary Flames tilt Sunday Jan. 5 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul was great proof of just how big hockey’s tent is, and how relatable its biggest stars can be. Among the 17,204 in attendance were more than 600 puck-heads who also happen to be in recovery, all taking part in the third annual Minnesota Wild Recovery Night. These fans came for the game, and also to hear former NHL star Kevin Stevens talk beforehand about his descent into and recovery from addiction.
Stevens’ is an amazing story of recovery and redemption, not to mention a cautionary tale on the dangers of substance abuse among elite athletes. He was a Lemieux line-mate, two-time Stanley Cup champion and perennial 40-goal scorer until an on-ice collision left him with massive head and facial injuries, addiction to painkillers and, ultimately, jail time for trafficking opiates. Now three years into his own recovery, Stevens dedicates his life to helping others find sobriety.
Minnesota Wild Recovery Night grew out of Recovery Community Hockey, a Wednesday night skate at St. Paul Academy’s Drake Arena that is open to men and women in recovery. The first event at the X two years ago drew 200 fans from the recovery community (organizers hoped 50 would show up), and last year 500 came to hear former Boston Bruin Derek Sanderson’s riveting tale of going from being the world’s highest-paid athlete to sleeping on park benches.
Once you get past the “beer league” associations, recreational sports are a great outlet for people in recovery, says Doug Anderson, Evening Program Coordinator for The Retreat and one of the founders of Recovery Community Hockey. Shared love of sport is the attraction, and a willingness to help others becomes the glue that makes participating more meaningful. It’s also a good recipe for long-term recovery. “People think they have to give up things like hockey and softball,” Anderson says. “We’re proof that you can be in recovery and still participate.”
Stevens says helping others is essential to his own recovery – a peer-to-peer approach that is central to the Minnesota Model of recovery. This gets to the heart of Stevens’ (unpaid) day job, the Power Forward Foundation, which provides education, outreach and prevention programming to help people overcome addiction. Other teams around the NHL are paying attention as well: the Tampa Bay Lightning sent representatives to Minnesota to talk with organizers about holding recovery events, and NHL brass are watching too.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018, Stevens said, “People did it to me. What they gave me to help me get clean and sober, you have to give it back. If someone needs help, you have to be there.”
Sunday night at the X, more than 600 hockey fans joined Stevens in being there, and giving back.
Sol Ryan is Director of Sober Living, Alumni & Community Relations, The Retreat, and also one of the organizers of Minnesota Wild Recovery Night.
Photo courtesy of John Shaughnessy