Hudson Special Hockey Is Changing the Game

by | Dec 2023

Hudson Special Hockey Players on Rink

Photos: NP Design & Photography

Hudson Special Hockey helps players of all abilities find their place on the ice.

The unmistakable, sweaty stink of a hockey bag. The blaring beat of classic rock and sharp sound of skates on ice. As it is in towns across the nation, youth hockey in the St. Croix Valley is part of the fabric of many kids’ late nights and early Saturday mornings.

But for two hockey players in Hudson, Wisconsin, a unique bond resulted in something bigger than both of them could have imagined.

Easton Schultz started playing hockey when he was 5 years old. Off the ice, he and the kids in the neighborhood played knee hockey and street hockey, growing up with the game he says he fell in love with.

As a young boy, Ian Witt was surrounded by figure skating. He watched his sister, Grace, on the ice and wanted to skate, too. “He was super feisty, super competitive, very similar to me,” Schultz says of his friend. “He just wanted to win; he likes scoring goals. We connected pretty quickly.”

In 2018, as a freshman at Hudson High School, Schultz volunteered for Bridge for Community Life in Hudson, a nonprofit that offers day clinics and activities for kids with intellectual and physical disabilities. His volunteer work took him to E.P. Rock Elementary school, where a group of kids played floor hockey—including Ian, who happens to have Down syndrome.

After meeting Ian’s family, Schultz became his personal care assistant. “We were shooting pucks at my house, and I asked his parents why he didn’t skate,” Schultz says. Though Ian had taken part in learn-to-skate programs, it hadn’t occurred to the Witts to become a hockey family. So, Schultz met Ian and his father at Play It Again Sports, and their friendship began.

The sport was new to Lisa, who grew up figure skating. “I needed a chart; what do we put on where and what goes on first,” Lisa says. “And Easton got him on the ice.”

After the gear was purchased, Schultz and Ian headed to the rink to get started. “He just fell in love with it; skating, passing, he picked it up really quickly. After that, something just clicked, and I wondered why there aren’t more opportunities for more kids to play in the area,” Schultz says. So, he set to work collecting more equipment and thinking about chances for everyone to pick up a stick and get on the ice.

Though Ian was a little older than some of the kids, he started playing on the Mites team with the Hudson Hockey Association. Lisa says the family wants to support Ian and give him opportunities—to see him fit in and be included. But she is careful about respecting the other kids. “Hudson Hockey has been so amazing with Ian and with us. I just didn’t want to make it harder for the players or the coaches,” she says. “The second that it becomes challenging for others to be inclusive, I carefully pull him back.”

Once Ian’s skills—and his skate size—grew, he was offered the chance to try out for the Bantam team. “He’s nowhere near that skill level, but it didn’t matter. The parents and coaches and the other kids kept encouraging all of us,” Lisa says. A teacher in Hudson, Lisa says it’s natural for kids to want to be in the spotlight. “But these hockey players just kept stepping back and letting him play.”

Like any kid who loves to play, Ian never wants to come off the ice, says his mom, Lisa Witt. Ian, 17, played on the Hudson Hockey Association’s Bantam C Team last year. “The whole season was magical,” Lisa says. “Every single thing that happened [was magic]—the coaches who helped Ian play in the league, another team let him score a goal, Fox News came and did a story and the team won the state championship.”

Lisa repeatedly told all of the parents what a gift it is for Ian to be included and able to play, even when Ian is stubborn and wants to do things his own way. “The parents said watching him was teaching their kids invaluable lessons about patience and acceptance and that Ian is a gift to them,” she says.

Ian Witt and Easton Schultz face off on the ice.

Ian Witt and Easton Schultz face off on the ice.

The Bantams’ experience at the state tournament was a thrilling success for everyone. “He was able to score a goal,” Schultz says of the championship game. “The teams that they were playing against were just as competitive, and they treated him just like any other human being. That’s ultimately what we can all strive to do; to make it normal to want to compete and be athletic and do what everyone else is doing.”

As it is for any devoted hockey player, the end of a season doesn’t mean hockey is finished. There are camps and spring leagues and squeezing in ice time. And that’s when the idea for Hudson Special Hockey materialized. Schultz pooled equipment, borrowed from the Mites program and found 12 people of various ages and disabilities who wanted to play hockey. He enlisted his brother, Rylan, and his family, and brought in volunteer coaches from the high school who got to work teaching the fundamentals of the game.

Because of growing interest, the National Hockey League Players Association contributed thousands of dollars’ worth of new hockey equipment to move the program into its second year. “CCM, Bauer, really nice new equipment,” Schultz says. “Twenty-five to 30 skaters were able to take a hockey bag with their name on it home after practice. Just having their own gear gave kids a chance to feel that special bond, to be part of a team.”

Growth also meant Hudson High School hockey players and the Hudson Havoc Juniors team players were brought in to help. “It was so cool to see a full community of hockey players fully embrace this program; there was no barrier,” Schultz says. “It is now a group of players who get together every week during the spring season to learn and push themselves, both players and volunteers.” The program has ice hockey sleds and walkers to accommodate players who come from Hudson, New Richmond and River Falls, Wisconsin, and even Woodbury. Schultz says if he encounters a person with a unique disability challenge, he just finds a way to include them.

Players are required to pay a $50 USA Hockey membership fee—something every player in the country is required to do to play in an organization. But ice time, equipment and training are free.

“The higher level for us as a family and for Ian is just to have those really typical boy experiences in life. There have been very few moments in my life with Ian where everything was just simply a moment—the normalcy when he can be no different than any other kid. I didn’t even realize that was happening,” Lisa says, voice wavering. “At the state tournament, they handed Ian the trophy … and now I’m crying.”

Ian raises a trophy as Hudson Hockey Association’s Bantam C Team celebrates its state championship win.

Ian raises a trophy as Hudson Hockey Association’s Bantam C Team celebrates its state championship win. Photo: Lisa Witt

Schultz and his family continue to look for more resources, more funding and more volunteers. With Schultz now in college at Iowa State University, the program sits squarely on his brother Rylan’s shoulders. It’s a task Schultz says his younger, also athletic sibling has readily taken on. Hudson Special Hockey will start its fifth year in the spring.

Schultz says he’s proud to see Hudson Special Hockey grow. “It’s bigger than wins and losses. You think of how blessed you are, and you just want to do that for other people—to give the gift of the game,” he says, adding it was never just him; it took an entire community to bring this program to life.

And two kids who loved hockey just the same.

Hudson Special Hockey Tying Ice Skate

Hudson Special Hockey is an accessible hockey program for players with special needs. The program is designed to break down traditional barriers of the sport and promote inclusivity. Training takes place at Hudson Civic Center. Skating, stick handling, shooting and other skills are the focus, and volunteers are needed to help with equipment and on ice with coaching and skills development. More information can be found

Hudson Hockey Association
Hudson Civic Center, 1820 Hanley Road, Hudson, Wisconsin; 715.386.3535
Facebook: Hudson Hockey Association
Instagram: @hudsonhockeywi


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