Hockey Humanitarian Award Finalist Spotlight: Minnesota Duluth’s Hughes excelling on ice, off ice with Sophie’s Squad raising awareness for mental health

By Matthew Semisch

So many college student-athletes thrive off the highly-regimented routines that come with the territory. When they have a lot of free time, they suddenly risk being unproductive.

Minnesota Duluth senior forward Gabbie Hughes doesn’t have that problem.

One of UMD’s two finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the country’s top women’s college hockey player, Hughes set a new career-high point this season total while helping the Bulldogs to a NCAA Tournament spot. While she takes pride in her on-ice accomplishments, though, what she’s doing off of it has the deepest impact.

Six months ago, Hughes and fellow founding members of a nonprofit organization called Sophie’s Squad held their first board meeting. The group, which raises awareness of childrens’ mental health issues and works to reduce the stigma of getting help, was named for Sophie Wieland, a 14-year-old from Sartell, Minnesota, who died of suicide July 12 of last year.

Hughes knew Wieland and her family through stickhandling clinics that Hughes taught, and the families became close. Following Wieland’s death, the Hughes family was determined to ensure that something good would come out of such a tragedy.

“My dad had a conversation with Sophie’s mom, Aimee and promised her that we’re going to do something about this,” Hughes said. “My brother, myself, my parents and a few other parents sat down and had a little conversation about what we would do.

“We originally came up with a golf tournament to raise money for kids who can’t afford to play summer hockey, and we came up with an idea to turn that over into a mental health awareness golf tournament. We created a board and (designated) committee members, and have had weekly meetings ever since.

“It’s been six months since our first board meeting, and we’re at almost $90,000 raised,” Hughes continued. “It’s been a very quick turnaround, but it has created a very big movement.”

Sophie’s Squad helps with chuck-a-puck during a recent Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey game (photo: UMD Athletics).

Sophie’s Squad is based near Hughes’ hometown of Lino Lakes, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. Hughes lives most of the length of the state away during the school year, but she remains as involved with the group as time allows. She has also become involved with the Green Bandana Project, an organization led by UMD student-athletes. In January, the Bulldogs women’s hockey team held fundraiser game nights for both mental health organizations.

Hughes is the first Hockey Humanitarian Award finalist to play under UMD coach Maura Crowell. For her, it comes as no surprise that Hughes has been so heavily involved in campaigns of such importance.

“I love that kid, and we have a great relationship,” Crowell said. “I feel like I’ve known her forever, just because of recruiting back in the day. I know her and her family really well, and I know how impactful Sophie was in her life, and when she passed like she did, I had a feeling Gabbie was going to be very moved by it and do something positive from that.

“Right when it happened, she reached out to us coaches asking if we could do helmet stickers, and I could see the wheels were turning her head. We’ve talked extensively about Sophie’s Squad and her involvement, and when it came to having a game here, she and I were spitballing ideas based on what they had done at high school games in the state, and Gabbie’s vision for what it should look like here. She really took the bull by the horns.”

The Sophie’s Squad group takes in a UMD women’s hockey game during the 2021-22 season (photo: UMD Athletics).

An integrated special education major, Hughes will play for UMD again next season as a graduate student, and is considering a sixth year of college in Duluth. All the while, on top of her work with the Green Bandana Project, she will be striving to help build the profile of Sophie’s Squad. The organization has become known for working with Minnesota hockey teams, but Sophie’s Squad is looking at casting its net out to more sports and groups from more states.

Hughes will remain plenty busy before and after her time at UMD is over. She is a highly-driven yet grounded individual, and that comes out when she talks about her work off the ice.

“Knowing that you’re doing something like this for a reason is important, because it can get pretty hard,” she said. “It’s definitely nice still having Sophie involved in my life every day, but I miss her all the time, and I can’t imagine how her family feels.

“It can be tough, but it’s about always remembering the greater good and the people that you can impact through it and having that passion inside of you for impacting people. You keep your eye on the goal of what you want to do, and never think your ideas are ridiculous or out of reach, because it’s not. If you have that passion and find the resources, you’ll get there.”