In a region where hockey rules among recreational sports, one team takes to the ice to help fellow veterans readjust to life after service. The 31-player Duluth Warriors hockey team boasts members of varying ages from all five branches of service.
Founded in 2016 by two local veterans, the Duluth Warriors are a member of the larger Minnesota Warriors program, an eight-team organization primarily based in the Twin Cities. The Warriors participate in weekly scrimmages and skates with other local hockey teams. All Warriors players have either a service-connected condition, or are in the process of being certified with such a condition.
The team competes annually in the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival tournament. Last season, the team’s C division roster took home the Warrior hockey championship, defeating the Pittsburgh Warthogs in the title game.
After last season’s triumphs, the team is taking a different focus after losing nearly half of its membership.
“We’re heavy into recruiting and rebuilding the team this year,” said Dustin “Dusty” Oosten, player and board member. “We want to get more skills clinics and more ice time for the Warriors so our players can improve their skills.”
The team is open to servicemen and women of any skill level, even those who have never skated. Oosten, 57, learned to skate again two years ago when he joined the Warriors program. He hadn’t skated since his high school days.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Oosten said, “We all get ice time.”
Aside from the physical activity, Warriors hockey offers the chance to socialize with other veterans and community members, something that Oosten says is pivotal for returning vets, especially those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The biggest part of Warrior hockey is social medicine,” Oosten said. “When we leave the military, we lose our significance. We lose our band of brothers connection. This is one way to get back that feeling of being part of a team again.”
Being a part of the team also means having a place to turn in times of need. Oosten knows the camaraderie is important to readjusting veterans, who often struggle with withdrawal and avoidance issues.
“When a brother or sister is struggling and they reach out to the team, the team helps,” Oosten said. “If we can’t help as a team, we know the resources in the community that can help.”
One of these resources is the Duluth Veterans Center, where Oosten himself works as a readjustment counseling therapist.
Despite his connection through his service and career, he knows there are others who could benefit from the social medicine that participating in Warriors hockey provides.
Other team members echoed the sentiment, highlighting the importance of getting the word out about their program. According to the most recent U.S. Census, there are more than 5,000 vets in Duluth, leaving plenty of room for the team to grow its ranks.
For more details about Duluth Warriors hockey membership and ways to get involved, visit mnwarriors.com or contact Oosten at the Duluth Veterans Center at 218-722-8654.
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