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For 13-year-old hockey player, a send-off for the ages

Owen Nei's medical conditions prevent him from playing at the next age level, so fans gave him a "senior night" to remember on Friday.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul Capitals pee wee team wants to make a run for the district title this year.

There’s no more important player in the championship push than 13-year-old Owen Nei.

“I couldn’t imagine this team without Owen,” teammate Brennan McMahon said. “He always makes me want to play my best game.”

Owen has been defying the odds since birth. Diagnosed with hydrocephalus and Goldenhar syndrome, he has persevered through more than a dozen surgeries, playing hockey far longer than anyone could have imagined.

But he’s reached the final point in his career. 

The next age level, bantams, will be much too physical for Owen because it involves checking.

So, on Friday night, Owen played his final home game at Schulz Arena in St. Paul – with a big surprise waiting for him.

“I think this is the most people I've ever seen at one of my games,” Owen said. “Kind of like a ‘Senior Night’ for pee wee, I guess.”

Exactly like that.

Owen’s family had no idea that parents and fans had organized a huge celebration for his final home game. Complete with “O-Dawg” signs and a boisterous pre-game introduction, they packed Schulz Arena on Friday and created an atmosphere almost unheard of at the pee wee level, giving the feel of a high school or college hockey game.

“Just the parents, the people that are showing up tonight for his last game, it’s just an amazing community,” Owen’s dad and coach, Chris, said. “I’ve been choked up all day.”

There were a few other surprises in store, too.

Former Minnesota Wild player Wes Walz presented Owen with a gift from the team, and Mayor Melvin Carter’s office proclaimed “Owen Nei Day" in the City of St. Paul.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Owen said of the whole spectacle.

Owen will still play a road game later this weekend and then the district tournament, but Friday was his last chance to dazzle the home crowd alongside his friends and teammates.

“I just love those kids,” he said. “They’re like family to me.”

Even though Owen won’t play next year, he’ll never stray far from the game he loves.

“[Hockey] means life. It means family. It means everything to me,” Owen said. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”

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