HASTINGS, Minn. -- Weston Ballard lifts a packed hockey bag over his shoulder and swings it around his body.
The weight of the bag isn't that much less than the 5-year-old himself, and Weston is pulled along with it and nearly taken to the ground. Weston's father, Harry, 40, stands a few feet away and laughs as he watches his son enjoy his new belongings.
Weston, like a lot of children in the State of Hockey, has caught hockey fever. He and his three siblings often watch hockey in their St. Paul, Minnesota, home and are captivated by Minnesota Wild games. Weston recently decided he wanted to play hockey himself and let his dad know. With three children already involved in other sports and knowing the costs that come with hockey, Harry would have likely steered Weston in another direction if he hadn't remembered Defending the Blue Line, a locally based nonprofit organization.
Harry, who is a full-time Army National Guard member, had heard about Defending the Blue Line through a military friend. Harry contacted by people with the organization and was told to stop by their facility in Hastings. When father and son arrived on a recent afternoon, Weston was handed a hockey bag and within 15 minutes he had made his way through aisles of equipment and had everything he needed to be a hockey player.
All of the equipment, worth about $1,000, cost the Ballard family nothing. Harry paid for it by serving his country. Defending the Blue Line provides military members' children free hockey equipment, grants for hockey fees and holds hockey camps. The organization assists nearly 25,000 military families annually.
"This is an opportunity we normally wouldn't have without Defending the Blue Line to get him out there," Harry said as Weston held onto his bag. "Just, I got four kids and the expense of gymnastics, plus the hockey, the fees and stuff like that, [it] wouldn't be possible, paying for new equipment ...
"Yeah, fantastic, so I'm super excited to see him out there and see what he can do. Hopefully, he loves it and sticks with it and can be a star one day. We'll shoot for the NHL."
Beginnings with Burns
Shane Hudella had been in uniform for the Minnesota Army National Guard at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in 2008 when he crossed paths with Burns, who was then playing for the Wild. Burns' grandfather fought in World War II, and Burns was eager to find out how he and other players could help the military more.
Hudella didn't have an exact answer, but took the conversation home with him and began brainstorming. He thought about his own family and how expensive putting his children through hockey was. From there, the idea for Defending the Blue Line was born.
"Literally, the next day [I] decided I'm going to do a nonprofit," the 44-year-old Hudella said.
Minnesota's hockey community embraced Hudella's idea immediately. Burns, other Wild players and past Minnesota North Stars, including J.P. Parise and Tom Reid, quickly got involved with the organization and donated equipment, tickets and time.
Defending the Blue Line grew quickly, and Hudella had to reevaluate his career a few times over the next few years. He first ran the organization during his off time as a full-time military member. He decided it needed more attention in 2010, and he became a part-time reservist. He made Defending the Blue Line his full-time job in 2012 and retired from the military altogether after 24 years.
Hudella retired from one job and delved much deeper into the other.
"It's crazy," Hudella said. "I had no idea that it would get this big. None at all. It's super overwhelming. It's 60-80 hours a week, in the office by 5 a.m. every day here, and here until 5 or 6 at night, and I'm on my freaking phone at home half the night, too. It drives my wife crazy.
"It's the old saying, 'If you're passionate about what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.' Boy, I just think I got the best job in the world."
Reid, who is a Wild radio broadcaster and a Defending the Blue Line board member, has noticed Hudella's working hours as well.
"He's up early in the morning," Reid said. "You can tell by the time of his emails. And he's up late at night. You can tell by the time of his emails. He has put his heart and soul into this, and the rewards aren't always in the monetary aspect of things. It's more in what he's given back."
What Defending the Blue Line gave back was at first given to local Minnesota military families. As Hudella added more NHL players and teams and corporate sponsors to his arsenal throughout the country, he was able to expand how much the organization could give, and to where.
Aside from filling local orders, the organization now ships five or six equipment orders per day and mails to all 50 states and Canada. It paid $100,000 in grant money last season to fund children's association fees. Wild forward Zach Parise is among the players to contribute to Defending the Blue Line. He got involved after his father, J.P., who was a Defending the Blue Line board member before he passed away in January, told him about it.
"I kind of just like the idea; it was a unique idea, kind of different than a lot of things that were out there," Zach Parise said. "I guess in our position, we want to be able to help kids play hockey. At the same time, it takes a pretty special person to be able to do what their parents do. Any small way you can help them, give them a chance to play hockey, take their mind off what their parents are doing while they're away, let them have a little fun. I'm kind of excited to be a part of something like that."
Defending the Blue Line receives help from 70 NHL players and 20 NHL teams. The NHLPA is also a donor and through its Goals and Dreams fund provides Hudella's organization with new equipment grants.
Burns personally pays for a suite for a military member for every Sharks home game. He also did that while with the Wild. He feels like he's received as much as he's given through his connection with Defending the Blue Line.
"I've had so many unbelievable experiences and done amazing things because of Shane and what it's grown into," Burns said. "Base visits, shooting guns, watching them train, just seeing those guys in those environments. Those are things I wanted to be able to experience and never would have if I hadn't met Shane. That's one side.
"There's also just meeting those guys and gals and hearing about that world they live in and about those things, good and bad, and having them share their stories. Just to hear their stories from coming to games, that's what you do it for."
A Veterans Day push
Air Force Maj. Pat McDonald grew up playing hockey in Wisconsin, and his love for the sport has been passed down to his children.
His son Logan began playing a few years ago and his daughter Briella recently picked up the sport. McDonald would like to be back home in Farmington, Minnesota, guiding his children as they play, but he's been deployed in Nevada for the past three months and has another three before he can return. Defending the Blue Line's presence helps him feel confident his children will be taken care of in whatever they need in hockey.
"I can't say enough about what Defending the Blue Line does," McDonald said. "I've seen firsthand how valuable it is. If my wife needs something done hockey-related and I'm gone, she has a place to go. She has somewhere to go that knows about hockey equipment and can answer those questions."
Hudella's plan is for those answers to expand to other sports in the future. Defending the Blue Line has already gotten involved in baseball, and other sports are to follow. He would also like to build a facility to hold an ice rink and a soccer/football field, and have a baseball diamond.
"Within the next 10 years, we want to become that organization that has the capability to help every single military family out there," Hudella said.
This week is an especially significant one in helping military members and their families. Teams throughout the NHL will hold military appreciation nights in observance of Veterans Day. Hudella will attend an appreciation night held by the Wild on Tuesday and will be at an Anaheim Ducks home game on Wednesday.
Defending the Blue Line vice president of regional development Tom Stark will travel to New York, where New York Islanders players bought 300 tickets for military members. Vice president of giving Taylor Callais will handle the business side from Minnesota, and they also have 20 regional program managers working throughout the country.
Hudella describes this week as "nuts," but whether it's dealing with this week, starting a nonprofit organization or managing else in his hectic life, he often returns to his military background. He might be retired, but what he learned in the military -- and his buzz cut -- remain.
"The military teaches you incredible things," Hudella said. "They teach you how to persevere. They teach you how to be disciplined. A lot of people who are in the military are Type A people who want to be champions. That's the mindset I have. We want to do absolutely everything we can for military families. We can't rest until we get there.
"Having that background in the military, you deal with a lot of diversity, good and bad. You kind of learn to not let the little things bug you and look at a bigger mission, picture. That's the kind of mindset we have. We've got a mission to reach every military kid out there. That's what we're going to do. Nothing's going to stop us."