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Hanna Hughes is back and dreaming big

Never has there been a time that Reese DiCecco can recall lifelong friend Hanna Hughes seeming in the dumps.

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Hanna Hughes, 22, of Rochester, lost her leg to cancer and has been playing sled hockey for four years. She hopes to play in the Paralympic Games.
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Never has there been a time that Reese DiCecco can recall lifelong friend Hanna Hughes seeming in the dumps.

You'd think with a cancer diagnoses at age 16 followed by a leg amputation, it would have been inevitable.

"I'm sure behind closed doors she was (down) at times, but I never saw it," DiCecco said. "Hanna is one of the most positive people I've ever been around."

Six years ago, the 22-year-old Hughes received that thunderbolt of bad news. That's when the eventual Rochester Lourdes and Minnesota Duluth graduate was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her hip. Ten rounds of chemotherapy later and the tumor having shrunk not at all, things only got worse.

Her right leg needed to be amputated.

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This was Hanna Hughes, a girl who lived to play sports. One week before having the leg taken away — her sophomore year at Lourdes — she celebrated her final time on the soccer pitch by scoring the winning goal for the Eagles junior varsity team.

And after that? Emotionally trying times were waiting for her. But Hughes being Hughes, she hung in there.

"It was hard, because I'd been such an active person," Hughes said. "The cancer came out of the blue. But I always had the attitude that I'd get through it, and that I could deal with it."

Said DiCecco: "She's always made the most of her situation."

That was on display Wednesday night as the two ice skated together at the Rochester Recreation Center. Hughes actually did her skating sitting down, on a sled with twin blades attached under it. In one hand Hughes held a small hockey stick for shooting the puck, in the other another small hockey stick. When she's not shooting, Hughes is driving both sticks into the ice like a skier, allowing her to get into motion.

This summer, you'll find college graduate Hughes at the Rec Center three times a week, planted on that sled, working on her new favorite activity — ice sled hockey.

It's a game that's been taken up by scores of people like Hughes, who've lost legs or been paralyzed. Sled hockey was developed in the 1960s and is one of the most recognized sports in the Paralympic Games, but for now is only offered for men at those Games.

Hughes' dream is to one day represent the United States women in sled hockey at the Olympics.

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In a little over a month, in Buffalo, N.Y., Hughes will get a better idea of just how realistic that dream is. That's when she's trying out for the USA women's sled hockey team. Making that would give her momentum toward competing with the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Women's sled hockey won't be a medaling sport yet in the 2018 Games, but it is expected to be in 2022 when the Games shift to Beijing, China.

Hughes, who spends most of her time in a wheel chair, was introduced to the sport as a Minnesota Duluth freshman. That's when another wheel-chair bound student — Ezra McPhail —approached her, asking if she'd ever considered giving sled hockey a try. McPhail had been a standout hockey player until a check into the boards left him paralyzed in his lower body. But he didn't give up on his sport, making the shift to the sled version.

So he wondered if Hughes would want to try it with him. That introduction came in Hughes' first week on the Duluth campus, her freshman year. She's been playing sled hockey ever since.

Hughes has even found a team to play on, a Minnesota collection that plays out of the Twin Cities called the Minnesota Wild. They play games all over the country. The Minnesota Wild consists entirely of men, except for Hughes, and players are allowed to check each other.

Hughes had always wanted to play traditional hockey prior to her cancer diagnosis six years ago. But her mother, Ginger Hughes, never allowed it. She thought hockey was too dangerous.

Now, here Hanna is, essentially playing men's hockey, with checking allowed, and doing it with a back full of metal thanks to post-cancer surgery.

But Ginger isn't getting in the way anymore.

"I'm not sure how she took it at first," Hanna said with a smile. "But this hockey is even more dangerous than they other kind for me. But I don't mind being checked. I'm not afraid of it."

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Hughes — who is five years cancer free — says she's just glad to be out there again, being active and competing. Normalcy has set in, and it's a beautiful thing.

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