At his personal best

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Slapshots members; Keith Hennemann, Patrick Todd, Apollo High School; Nick Hickman, Marty Mjelleli, Marcelli Mutua-Kombo

Slapshots members with Marty include: back row from left, Keith Hennemann and Patrick Todd, Apollo High School; front row from left, Nick Hickman, Apollo High School, Marty Mjelleli and Marcelli Mutua-Kombo

Two years ago Husky hockey forward and three-time All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association Academic Team designee Marty Mjelleli dropped by a practice session of the St. Cloud Slapshots adapted floor hockey team. He was hooked – in a good way.

"At the end of the game one of the kids leaned over and asked if I would be back tomorrow," said Mjelleli, who had visited because two of his Husky teammates were helping to coach the Minnesota High School League team of cognitively impaired seventh-through-twelfth graders. "I thought, I can’t lie to him, and it’s nice to be wanted. Next thing I know I’m going every day to practice."

As a volunteer assistant coach, he joined the Slapshots as they experienced the disappointments and joys of two full seasons, including the celebration of a 2007 Minnesota High School League championship.

For Mjelleli, a spring graduate from Faribault and the son of teachers, the community service habit was instilled early. Volunteering was a given at home and mandatory at his high school, Shattuck St. Mary’s. He considers it a way to thank the people who’ve mentored him. "I’ve been blessed with good teachers, good coaches and good parents," he said. "I want to carry the torch, … make the circle complete."

And so he has. Mjelleli was honored as a finalist this year for two coveted national awards – the National Collegiate Athletic Association Hockey Humanitarian Award and Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award. When he volunteers, he doesn’t just show up. "I love hands-on experiences," Mjelleli said. "I like to be involved." And while he admits sneaking in a little ESPN at lunchtime, his schedule keeps him running.

The dedicated athlete and student with a double major in marketing and communication studies has done a variety of service projects with kids, including volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club, Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, St. Cloud’s Great River Regional Library reading program, and Goodwill and Clothes for the Blind. As vice president of the Student Athlete Advisor Council, he participated in food drives for local organizations.

But it’s his work with the Slapshots that has been a significant commitment and most rewarding experience for Mjelleli, who plans to return to St. Cloud State to earn his MBA after pursuing post-graduate hockey opportunities. For the past two years, from November to March, he worked with the team four days a week for hour-and-a-half practices, plus games and post-season tournaments.

"These kids really look up to Marty," said Therese Todd, who works in the National Hockey Center office and whose son Patrick is a veteran six-year Slapshot player named to the Wells Fargo All-Conference team last year. "They follow the Huskies as much as the Huskies follow them. It’s really something for them to have a REAL hockey player show them what to do. The kids just idolize him."

"Marty’s contribution has been tremendous," said Todd, who has been the conduit for connecting Husky players with Slapshots. "He’s coach, mentor and a role model – whether he’s helping them put on their helmets or showing them moves."

The Adapted Athletics Program is part of the Minnesota State High School League and includes teams of high school students who are either physically or cognitively impaired. "Being part of the Slapshots is more than a varsity sport for the players," according to Todd, who credits Mjelleli and former Husky teammates Grant Clafton ’08 and Andrew Gordon ’07, Washington, D.C., with making a tremendous impact on their lives.

"A lot of these kids don’t have a lot of other opportunities for friendship and bonding," said Todd. "You put them together, and they become a team. Sometimes they get to stay overnight in a hotel, go out for pizza with the team – the same things other kids their age get to do."

Mjelleli, who well understands the significance of such bonding, works with other high school students at summer hockey camps to earn income. But the Slapshots are special.

"Many people think I’m teaching them, but in actuality they’re teaching me," he said. "I’m learning how to conduct myself in front of a team. I’m learning patience. This is a perfect avenue for exploring coaching … the experience is really rewarding."

- Marsha Shoemaker

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