For Minnesota Duluth’s Hughes, focusing on mental health awareness top priority for Sophie’s Squad

By Nicole Haase

For the second year in a row, Minnesota Duluth forward and co-captain Gabbie Hughes has been named a finalist for the Hockey Humanitarian Award.

The graduate student started Sophie’s Squad, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the mental health of athletes from the youth level to college by raising awareness of mental health issues and removing the stigma associated with getting help, in the summer of 2021. The group is named in honor of her friend Sophie Wieland, who died by suicide when she was 14. In the 20 months since, the organization has raised nearly $300,000 and held dozens of events.

The organization has grown and while the year of experience has helped Hughes become more comfortable in some ways, the rapid growth of Sophie’s Squad has also forced her and the other board members to reevaluate and redefine what the group will become.

“It’s not as little as we thought it was going to be. It’s turned into something a lot bigger. Throughout this year, we’ve been able to transition into that mindset and find different goals that we want because we can think a lot bigger than we expected,” Hughes said.

“I think we’re more versed in what we’re trying to do and how our program and organization is going to work. [We had] that year to sift through the emotions and feel it all and be able to come out on the other side of that and continue to run with what we’re doing.”

While there are quantifiable benchmarks the group have reached, like a $50,000 donation to a new inpatient mental health unit at Children’s Minnesota hospital, so much of what Sophie’s Squad does is intangible. That doesn’t make it any less meaningful or important, but it does make it difficult to talk about.

Sophie Weiland left a note that said she’d been struggling for three years and in the aftermath of her death, it became clear that she had not shared any of her difficulties with anyone.

It was that detail that stood out to Hughes, who says she herself has struggled through mental health difficulties, but always had someone to release her emotions to. That Sophie did not feel like she could share any of these thoughts with anyone lit a passion in Hughes.

“I have struggled with my mental health. It’s a really tough battle to go through and you can come out on the other side of it, but there are the few that don’t and Sophie was one of those. I think having it hit so close to home with someone that I loved and cared about made me want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again – or if we can do something to save at least one person from acting on that or the emotions that they’re feeling. I think the loss of Sophie really drove it home in my head that I have the capability to help others. If we would have had this message earlier on in her lifetime and she was able to hear it, maybe it would have saved her,” said Hughes.

The message of support and openness that Sophie’s Squad spreads is important, but it gains extra weight with a player of Hughes’ caliber behind it. “It’s ok not to be ok” has become almost cliché and it’s easy to dismiss, but Sophie’s Squad events put Hughes and others at the forefront, sharing honestly and making themselves vulnerable, which makes it so much more impactful.

Sophie’s mom, Aimee, who sits on the Sophie’s Squad board, said she knows the events have an impact because people have often pulled her aside to tell her so. Younger attendees and their parents, coaches and other support systems usually whisper to her, she said, still learning how to shed the stigma of having these conversations out loud. And they tell her how much the conversations have helped them, or helped them be better for the people in their lives who are struggling.

So while there may not be a quantifiable statistic to show the importance of Sophie’s Squad, Aimee knows what the group does has value. She knows exactly how important a single conversation could be.

“What I hope it does is that it just maybe prevents something like this happening to anybody else – another family, another child. Sophie was just so young and she was too young to have all those problems and that pressure put on herself,” said Aimee Weiland.

On a more personal note, Aimee finds comfort in the fact that through Sophie’s Squad, her daughter won’t be forgotten. She knows that as time passes and memories fade, so will people’s recollections of Sophie.

“To have her name out there, even though people might not really know who Sophie really, really was, they’ll at least know kind of who she was. That she was a hockey player. And that she suffered this thing that she didn’t tell anybody about and that it’ll hopefully help somebody else. I can’t even put in words how much it means to me,” Aimee said.

“I don’t even think I can put into words what it means. It just means everything, what Gabbie has done taking this on in Sophie’s name. I wish I had better words. Gabbie is kind. She’s sweet. She’s funny. She’s a hard worker and she’s compassionate. I’m just so fortunate that she wanted to take this on with everything else she has going on in her life.”

Hughes said that in planning Hockey Fights Back events for Sophie’s Squad, she simply puts herself in the skates of those attending and asks herself how she would feel and what would be going through her mind. She hopes that the events provide the information, support and education she would want or need.

“I think that experience up here, being a student athlete and going through the things that I’ve been through personally can help me help other people. Sophie’s Squad has given me a bigger purpose in life that I didn’t know I would have and I think that has helped me a lot,” she said.

Hughes leads the Bulldogs with 46 points and is in graduate school. Adding the responsibilities of Sophie’s Squad to her life is sometimes difficult. She’s been a part of every event so far, either in person or via a web conference. The support of her coaches, staff and teammates has been an immense help, she said, from supporting her in her grief after Sophie’s death to making sure she can take time for events and volunteering alongside her.

“It was a hard adjustment for sure, but every bit of it has been so fulfilling and I think that’s what helps me get through it,” Hughes said.

Beyond juggling all the responsibilities, there are also just some difficult days when the loss of Sophie feels extra tough and painful. Sophie’s Squad has become an amazing organization doing great work. It’s fulfilling and important. But it also started because of the senseless death of a 14-year-old girl who shared Hughes’ birthday and was her friend. On those days, Sophie’s Squad is just as important, but in a different way. The group behind the scenes is rare and supportive, Hughes said, and they go through the hard stuff together. They get through it together.

“You know that you’re doing this for a bigger purpose. But there are those days where it is really hard and you know you’re doing all this great work, but it stemmed from losing someone that you loved and cared about. The group that we have makes what we’re doing so rewarding that it makes it a better experience. We’re surrounded by people that love Sophie,” said Hughes.

An Elementary and Special Education major, Hughes said not much has changed in what she wants to do with her career, but she hopes she can find a way to combine her commitment to mental health awareness with that in a dream job that lets her pursue all her passions.

She hopes to keep playing hockey and has plans to bring Sophie’s Squad along wherever she ends up, pointing out that high level athletes have the same struggles and experience even more stigma when talking about them.

Aimee Weiland knows that whatever Hughes decides to do next, it will make a difference.

“There’s just so much that she’s done and accomplished in such a little time for being so young, for being a college kid and playing hockey,” Aimee said.

“I think the impact she has is probably immeasurable. It’s greater than probably anybody ever knows.”