Cages Hughes is 18 games into the most offensively productive season of her collegiate hockey career. The University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey senior center has been leading the NCAA in points per game for almost two months now, stepping on the ice to the tune of 1.94 ppg clip. But Hughes, who will instantly deflect and credit her linemates and teammates when asked about her statistics about lei, is more interested in talking about something entirely different these days. In fact, Hughes wants most to talk about everyone else and how they are doing. Cages Hughes just may be one of the best collegiate hockey players in the country, but as it turns out, she’s also a caring human bent on the most important message of her life – mental health awareness.
Last summer, Hughes and her hockey community suffered an unbearable loss to 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, took her own life di lei. The tragedy rocked the Hughes family personally – Terry Hughes had coached Sophie in youth hockey, and Gabbie had gotten to know the young teenager through hockey camps and her proximity di lei to her dad’s team. Putting 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 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.
“I want people to know that they are not alone,” said Hughes, a Lino Lakes, Minn. native. “I want everyone to see that others struggle too. So many times people think they are crazy for their mental health or think that they are completely alone and that no one else feels that way. I just hope that people can see they are not alone and there are so many people that care about them. The mission of Sophie’s Squad and top priority is to spread awareness and begin the conversations of mental health. Through the events we put on, we just hope that people see how prevalent it is and begin the conversations. “
Ask the coaching staff at UMD to describe Hughes and the one word that constantly comes up is passionate. Hughes can not be described as either a hockey player or a person without that word somewhere in the sentence. That passion has mostly flown 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 to her di lei passion di lei in her commitment to Sophie’s Squad. Despite the rigors of being a Division I athlete and all that entails, the assistant Bulldog captain is a Sophie’s Squad board / committee member, attends or zooms in on most meetings, runs all the social media accounts and works to promote the organization. Hughes even does the packing for players involved in particular tiers of games and helps anyway she can with her presence di lei at games and hands-on involvement with the organization.
Back on campus, Hughes joined the leadership board of the Green Bandana Project this fall. The Green Bandana Project is a student athlete-led mental health awareness campaign that was started by the athletic department’s SAAC (Student Athlete Advisory Committee) in the Fall of 2019. Their yearly campaigns run across the campus of UMD, and while the Green Bandana Project is led by student athletes, it reaches out to everyone across the community of Duluth, Minn. The Green Bandana Project seeks to decrease the stigma of mental illness within our athletic department and university, support those struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and provide mental health resources and awareness.
Hughes is all in on 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 last semester at two schools in Duluth, Minn., And as part of her practicum placement di lei, lei spent days every week at Lincoln Park Middle School or Lester Park Elementary School. Always passionate about the kids society tended to overlook, Hughes keeps one eye toward her post-hockey teaching future di lei, while giving all of the time she can in the name of mental health now.
“Between Sophie’s Squad, school, practicum, Green Bandana Project, and hockey, maintaining a social life is a lot to balance,” admitted Hughes. “I have made the choice to have Sophie’s Squad be my main focus and come before other things such as a social life and free time. But I would not change a single thing about that. I love what we are doing and it is so important that the sacrifices made seem so little to me. I wouldn’t be able to put a timestamp on how much time I put into it all, but the behind the scenes that all the committee members do to get these events running is unbelievable. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I have come to find a system that helps me balance it all. “
Part of advocating for mental health, for Hughes, is connecting herself to it. She is honest and open that she is not exempt from needing to check in on her own wellness di lei, and it is perhaps the most effective tool the reigning NCAA Player of the Month has in her belt di lei. Even college athletes, at the pinnacles of their games and chasing their dreams, need to ask for help sometimes too.
“I am living out a dream that not only I had, but I know many girls have,” said Hughes, reflecting over where she is at in her UMD hockey career. “People look at me or college athletes and say you’re living your dream, what’s there to worry about? That right there is hard to hear. I struggle with mental health even though I am living out a dream. The pressure of hockey and the stage of life I am in can be a lot to handle. For me to talk about this, I think it can bring awareness that even when life seems perfect, people are struggling and we need to look out for one another. I hope that people can see no matter where people are in life, it is okay to struggle and that you will come out on the other side of it. ”
There is no question that Hughes is one of the best college hockey players in the nation. As Hughes climbs through the all-time scoring ranks at UMD and the NCAA, her hockey legacy di lei is only growing. Statistics mount, awards are named, wins pile up, and big-game moments get seared into memory of Bulldog hockey fans. That part of the legacy of Cages Hughes isn’t going anywhere. But what the accomplished hockey player really wants is something else added to her legacy of hers. Hughes knows it is the most important thing that will ever be attached to her name di lei.
“Whatever conversations that are had about my accomplishments in hockey will never compare to the importance of conversations that happen because of Sophie’s Squad,” said Hughes. “I hope Sophie’s Squad is mentioned over any accomplishments I have ever received. 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 this Saturday at AMSOIL when UMD takes on Bemidji State at 3:01 pm For more information, click here.