Ron Hermansen plays for the Rogers Wildcats, a team that represents Minnesota Special Hockey in the northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities. Ron was recently named the USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year, an award the recognizes the recipient’s outstanding contributions to disabled hockey through sportsmanship, leadership, community and volunteer service, and actions as a role model for other disabled athletes.
Ron is 44 years old and lives in Coon Rapids with his wife, Shelly, and their two cats. He has competed in a variety of sports since his youth and is very active with Special Olympics Minnesota as one of their Athlete Leadership Program Global Messengers, through which he works to grow opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities by recruiting new athletes, families, volunteers and donors.
Ron first became involved with Minnesota Special Hockey (MSH) in 2008. At that time, the league consisted of four teams and Ron made an immediate impact on his teammates, coaches and the league as a whole. To say that Ron is a leader is an understatement. He possesses innate qualities that draw people to him. Those qualities along with his outward desire for everyone to do and be their best both on and off the ice have literally transformed the lives of his teammates and their parents.
Under Ron’s caring tutelage, players who previously walked or spoke with their heads down, or exhibited poor sportsmanship when action on the ice didn’t go their way, now serve as leaders in their respective classrooms, “paying it forward” by similarly helping and encouraging younger or more severely disabled peers. Wildcat parents speak about how much their special needs children and young adults look up to Ron and the positive impact he has on their self-confidence, personal growth and social development. Several have commented about how Ron seeks enjoyment from contributing to the success of others versus seeking success for himself.
Ron knows most MSH players by name, whether they skate on the highest functioning line, like him, or one of the lower functioning lines. He relates to each player, volunteer and coach in a unique way – not just the same “fist bump” for everyone – which is an amazing gift that makes everyone feel special and uniquely encouraged.
An example of this gift and its impact occurred at a floor hockey event at which Ron’s northern Twin Cities association was represented by five teams of widely varying levels of ability. During a game in which their lowest functioning team was playing and few beyond family members were watching; Ron and I were near one of the corners watching the action when a 10-year old girl who was new to the team came after a puck near where we were sitting. Ron yelled, “Good job, Carly! Way to go after that puck!” The little girl was stunned. After clearing the puck out of the corner, she looked at Ron and said, “You know me?!” She played the rest of the game with extra juice in her step knowing that the best player from the top team in the state knew who she was and was encouraging her to do her best. She bragged about that to her mother and grandparents immediately after the game.
Ron takes a handful of his leadership development “students” into the opposing team’s locker room before each game to wish the players and coaches good luck. As MSH has expanded, he has been front-and-center in helping three new teams get off the ground either by helping as an assistant coach during initial practices or pulling double-duty on game days by skating with his own team, then racing over to a different rink to lace ‘em up with the new team.
Ron’s impact is not limited to his special needs peers. The Wildcat coaching staff has an unofficial motto: Our players don’t learn from us, we’re the ones who learn from them. We learn about true sportsmanship, the value of encouragement, and the pure, unfiltered joy of competing, achieving and being part of a team. The Wildcats have seven non-disabled student volunteers, some of whom serve in leadership roles on their own teams and apply their experiences with Ron to those teams.
Wildcat coach John Nielsen, whose student volunteer daughter, Jordan, has spent three seasons around Ron and will be heading to an out-of-state college next year, said, “The Wildcats have done far more for Jordan than she has done for them. Without this experience I would not have the confidence in her going off to school that I do. Ron and these players have given her a perspective on life and shown that it's not about what gifts you have been given but what you give back with ones you have.”
Ron enriches the lives of those around him by being one of the best and hardest working players in MSH and tirelessly sharing his many gifts.
Congratulations, Ron, on this tremendous and well deserved award. You have had an enormous impact on everyone associated with MSH and we are so proud of you for this national recognition.