OTSEGO, Minn. — Grow up in a state where little more than a puddle can be an invitation to skate, and fate can sometimes be cruel.
“It kind of makes me feel sad,” Owen Lipinski says.
Owen, at the age of 12, is a hockey fanatic.
“Huge,” his father, Kelly Lipinski, says about his son's passion for hockey.
But that’s where Owen’s love of the game gets hard checked into a medical condition with which he was born.
“Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder,” Owen’s father explains.
Diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome at age 2, Owen has grown up knowing that a bad blow could leave him blind, or in a worst case, threaten his life.
“My body is kind of, it's not as strong as most other people's,” Owen explains.
Playing for Minnesota Special Hockey has been fun for Owen, but he wanted more.
“You know, ‘Don't understand why I can't,’" Owen’s mother, Becky Lipinski, says, quoting her son. “‘I just want to be part of a regular team.’”
All of which explains the lumbering figure, swallowed up by goalie gear, emerging from the basement of Owen’s home.
“I think it just kind of came to me,” says the boy under the gear. “I want to do a tournament.”
By the time Owen descends a hill and reaches the pond behind his house, several of his neighborhood friends have already taken the ice.
“He walked up to my doorstep and asked me if I wanted to play,” Jason Shaft, 11, says as he laces his skates. “‘Sure, and what team will I be on?' That's what I said."
Spectators parade between the houses surrounding the pond, a public address system is plugged into an extension cord and popcorn pops at the rink-side concession stand.
All of it is Owen’s doing in one way or another.
“Everybody, come here,” Owen yells, rounding up the tournament players at center ice.
“I wasn't sure it was going to get it pulled off,” his father tells a neighbor.“ And then he did it!” she responds excitedly.
The whistle sounds, the puck drops and someone in the crowd yells, “Let’s play hockey!”
Six, two-person teams fill the tournament field, all the skaters recruited from the surrounding neighborhood by Owen.
Owen’s whistle-blowing little brother, Isaac, serves as the referee.
And Owen – with his goalie dreams – will stay in the net for every game.
“He's the ultimate goalie, as he calls himself,” Owen’s mother says with a laugh.
Owen’s handpicked teams play under names such as King Penguins, Yetis, and Blue Snowmen.
Owen designed all six of the team logos and recruited Barree Breimhorst, a crafty neighbor, to help apply them to the tournament jerseys purchased, in part, through the raffle tickets Owen sold.
Barree says Owen first asked for her help last summer and checked in frequently as she worked on the jerseys to make sure they were being done to his specifications.
"Oh yeah, he knew," she says. "I think it’s so cool that he put it all together."
Kelly offers, perhaps, the best example of his son's focus on the tournament when he says, "One time, I was dead asleep, it was 11 o'clock, I was totally out. ‘Dad, Dad.’ I thought someone was breaking in the house. He goes, ‘No, no, we’ve got to get these graphics put together for the tournament.’”
And now, finally, all that work has come to fruition.
As Owen stands in net, blocking shots, Kelly keeps a close eye on the ice and his son.
“Biggest thing is just to be safe, okay?” he cautioned the players at the start of the tournament.
They are Owen’s closest friends from the neighborhood, most, if not all of them, are aware of Owen’s condition.
The pucks come in low.
Other parents keep an eye out just in case.
“Sticks down,” one of them yells out of caution.
Owen recruited his friends’ parents too, as announcers, score keepers, and between game ice scrappers.
Owen’s parents say their son will never forget this day.
“It's something he can do with his friends and probably feel a little bit more like he's part of a team,” his mother says.
Like any parents, Becky and Kelly were concerned how Owen might cope with his diagnosis.
But on a brisk Saturday, as they stand in the snow at the edge of the rink watching the tournament planned by their son, Owen has again put his parents' worries on ice.
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