Game Changer

Special Hockey Player Develops More Than Just His On-Ice Skills Thanks To The Help Of A Friend

When Ryan Foster showed up for his first practice with the Edina Stingers in 2009, he was hard to miss.

He stood inside Braemar Arena in Edina, Minn., at 6-foot-8, 350 pounds, sporting long, straggly hair and a bushy beard.

Prior to his first practice, Foster had limited skating experience and had never played organized hockey. With that in mind, he was paired with Jared Wiesler, a volunteer who was also attending his first Stingers' practice.

The day proved to be one that would change each of their lives for the better. Over the course of the next seven years, Foster would continue to develop his game on the ice, improve his health and become a person that his teammates and opponents could look up to.

It was a far cry from the early days of his special hockey career when he struggled staying upright on the ice.

Still, he never lost his focus on improving and having fun.

"He worked really hard at not only learning how to skate but he worked at learning the game of hockey," Wiesler recalled. "He wanted to be the best at it."

Eventually Foster's tenacity paid off. Soon, he was skating with ease and even started going backwards. He also used his size and strength to shoot the puck with authority.

The decision to join special hockey also helped Foster get into better shape. In less than two seasons he had lost more than 100 pounds.

"Ryan always wanted to be a good hockey player," said Jane Cashin, the Stingers' team manager and president of Minnesota Special Hockey. "He loves the sport. He's really worked at it."

Once his skills developed as a skater and player, Foster decided to take on a new challenge by trying his hand in goal. The main reason for the switch, he said, was because he likes stopping the puck.

Things also improved off the ice as well. Along with his physical transformation, Foster began to develop friendships with his teammates and volunteers such as Wiesler.

They started by working together at practice. Then, the two started spending time together away from the rink.

"A lot of it had to do with trust-building," Wiesler said. "At first, we had a mentor-mentee relationship. From there it became like a big brother relationship."

Looking back, Wiesler joked it's harder to find ways Foster hasn't changed than looking at what has changed. Those with the Stingers have seen Foster's self-esteem change. He's also become someone they enjoy spending time with.

"He's more open to communicating. He's more open to joking with people," Cashin said. "You can just see how social and outgoing he's become."

For players of any age or ability, especially those with developmental challenges, having a team atmosphere is something that can benefit someone on an off the ice.

"When you're on a team where the coach has created an atmosphere where it's safe to fail and succeed, it can make a huge difference in someone's life," said Alan Goldberg, a sports performance consultant based in Massachusetts. "They have their self-esteem built up and all players feel included."

For Wiesler, getting to know Stinger players such as Foster has had a positive impact on his life as well. As someone who grew up playing basketball in South Dakota, he's surprised hockey has become such a major part of his life. Along with volunteering with the Stingers, he has taken on the role of being Minnesota Special Hockey's marketing coordinator and webmaster.

"The kids in the program give way more back to me as a person," Wiesler said. "You gain so many friendships with everyone involved. It's helped me in everything that I do."

For the past few years, Wiesler and Foster have taken on a role as some of Special Hockey's best spokespeople. The two have helped represent the organization at events through the Minnesota Wild, international disabled hockey events and the Hendrickson Foundation, a Minnesota-based organization that helps grow disabled hockey.

Even when they aren't at events or being asked about their special hockey experience, Wiesler jokes that Foster still manages to find a way to bring up his time with the Stingers.

These success stories are why dedicated volunteers like J.J. O'Connor, USA Hockey's disabled hockey chairperson, get involved in the first place, and make the long hours spent serving the sport well worth the effort.

"For special hockey players, it's about being part of something bigger than yourself," O'Connor said.

"[Success like this] fuels volunteers and parents as well as inspire others. It becomes something people want to be a part of. It creates growth and change."

For Cashin and other members of the Minnesota Special Hockey board, they enjoy seeing Foster serving as an ambassador for the program.

"One of our slogans is 'hockey changes lives,' and it definitely has for Ryan," Cashin said. "We have used him to promote development in social, physical and mental situations in all those different things that we can provide for a player."

"He's become somebody everybody at the rink knows. He's that big Minnesota goalie." 

 

Issue: 
2017-07

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