MENTAL HEALTH ON THE FRONT – THE NEW LEGACY OF GABBIE HUGHES

Gabbie Hughes is 18 games into the most offensively productive season of her collegiate hockey career. The University of Minnesota Women’s Hockey Center, Duluth, has led the NCAA in points per game for nearly two months, stepping onto the ice with a 1.94 ppg clip. But Hughes, who immediately rejects and credits her linemates and teammates when asked about her stats, is more interested in something completely different these days. In fact, Hughes prefers to talk about everyone else and how they are doing. Gabbie Hughes may be one of the best collegiate hockey players in the country, but it turns out she’s also a caring human being, focused on the most important message of her life: mental health awareness.

Last summer, Hughes and her hockey community suffered an unbearable loss from the silence surrounding mental health. On July 12, 2021, Sophie Wieland, a 14-year-old girl who played in the Sartell-Sauk Rapids youth hockey system, committed suicide. The tragedy shocked the Hughes family personally – Terry Hughes had coached Sophie in youth hockey, and Gabbie had come to know the young teen through hockey camps and her close proximity to her father’s team. To put their grief into action, the Hughes family, along with the Wieland family, created Sophie’s Squad a few weeks later. Sophie’s Squad is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the mental health of athletes, from youth to college, by raising awareness of mental health issues and removing the stigma associated with getting help.

“I want people to know they’re not alone,” says Hughes, a resident of Lino Lakes, Minnesota. “I want everyone to see that others are struggling too. So often people think they are crazy about their mental health or think they are all alone and that no one else feels that way. I just hope people can see that they are not alone and there are so many people who care about them. Sophie’s Squad’s mission and top priority is to spread awareness and start the conversations about mental health. Through the events we organize, we hope people see how common it is and start the conversations.”

Ask the UMD tech staff to describe Hughes and the one word that constantly comes up is passionate. Hughes cannot be described as a hockey player or a person without that word anywhere in the sentence. That passion has flown largely through hockey, and it’s in the fabric of who Hughes is. With a penchant for celebrating goals hard and demanding the best of herself and her teammates on the ice, Hughes has found another gear in her passion in her dedication to Sophie’s Squad. Despite the rigors of being a Division I athlete and all that comes with it, the Assistant Bulldog Captain is a board/committee member of Sophie’s Squad, attends or zooms in on most meetings, manages all social media accounts and works to promote the organization. Hughes even does the packing for players involved in certain levels of games and helps anyway with her game presence and hands-on involvement with the organization.

Back on campus, Hughes joined the board of the Green Bandana Project this fall. The Green Bandana Project is a student-led mental health awareness campaign initiated in Fall 2019 by the Athletics Department’s SAAC (Advisory Committee for Student Athletes). Their annual campaigns span the campus of UMD, and while the Green Bandana project is led by student athletes and reaches everyone in the Duluth, Minnesota community. The Green Bandana Project aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness within our athletics department and university, support people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and provide mental health resources and awareness.

Hughes is all about mental health awareness, to the point where she doesn’t have the time she used to. The Integrated Education Special Education (IESE) major also spent the past semester at two schools in Duluth, Minn., and as part of her on-the-job internship, she spent days a week at Lincoln Park Middle School or Lester Park Elementary School. Always passionate about the children society has overlooked, Hughes keeps an eye on her future as a hockey teacher, while now giving all the time she can in the name of mental health.

“Between Sophie’s Squad, school, lab, Green Bandana Project and hockey, maintaining a social life is a lot to balance,” admitted Hughes. “I made the choice to have Sophie’s Squad as my main focus and come for other things like social life and leisure. But I wouldn’t change that. I love what we do and it’s so important that the sacrifices made seem so little to me I wouldn’t be able to time stamp how much time I put into it but the behind the scenes all the committee members do to keep these events running is incredible I would don’t change anything. I’m looking for a system that will help me balance everything.”

Part of advocating for mental health, for Hughes, is committing oneself to it. She’s honest and open that she’s not exempt from checking for her own well-being, and it’s arguably the most effective tool the reigning NCAA Player of the Month has in her belt. Even college athletes, at the peak of their game and chasing their dreams, sometimes need to ask for help too.

“I’m living a dream that not only did I have, but I know a lot of girls have,” Hughes said, reflecting on where she stands in her UMD hockey career. “People look at me or at college athletes and say you’re living your dream, what’s there to worry about? That’s hard to hear. I struggle with mental health, even though I’m living a dream. The pressure of hockey and the stage of life I am in can be many things. When I talk about this I think it can bring awareness that even when life seems perfect people are having a hard time and we need to take care of each other I hope people can see where people are in life too, it’s okay to struggle and come out the other side.”

There is no doubt that Hughes is one of the best college hockey players in the country. As Hughes climbs through the all-time scoring ranks at UMD and the NCAA, her hockey legacy only grows. Stats pile up, prizes are called, wins pile up, and moments from big games are seared in the memory of Bulldog hockey fans. That part of the legacy of Gabbie Hughes isn’t going anywhere. But what the veteran hockey player really wants is something else added to her legacy. Hughes knows this is the most important thing that will ever be attached to her name.

“Whatever conversations there are about my achievements in hockey, it will never match the importance of conversations happening because of Sophie’s Squad,” said Hughes. “I hope Sophie’s Squad is mentioned above all achievements I’ve ever had. That conversation is the most important thing people will ever talk about.”

**The Bulldogs will host a Hockey Hits Back Sophie’s Squad Mental Health Awareness Game at AMSOIL this Saturday when UMD takes on Bemidji State at 3:01 PM. Click here for more information.

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