‘We are Vikings’: Steamboat hockey team plays in honor of late player Drew Rushton
The Steamboat Springs Vikings look like a regular hockey team. The players pass, shoot and check. They wear skates, pads and jerseys, and they play against other Colorado teams. The Vikings are more than a hockey team, though.
Yancey Rushton created the team, which is composed of high school athletes, as a tribute to his son, Steamboat hockey player Drew Rushton, who died at age 10 last December from an illness brought on by aplastic anemia, a rare disease that causes the body to stop producing enough new blood cells. The Vikings play because of him and for him.
Rushton chose the name Vikings because it was a nickname his son Drew earned while staying with a family while playing in a league in Denmark. His blonde hair made him look like the Danish players, so his host family called him their “little Viking.”
Rushton said Drew was also as strong as a bearded warrior while in the hospital, exhibiting courage and strength through his treatments and bone marrow transplant. To support him in his recovery, Rushton started a hockey team. He hoped his son could come to the games, wave to players and be cheered up from watching the sport he loves. Drew couldn’t attend the first tournament due to a downturn in his condition, but his father was still confident his son would pull through.
“I played him this Viking motivational speech every day in the hospital. ‘Satan whispered in your ear, you can’t handle the storm. The Viking replied, I am the storm,’” Rushton recalled. “That was our saying, ‘I am the storm.’ I knew he was going to make it.”
On Dec. 2, 2018, Drew died, curled up next to his mother, from pulmonary veno-occlusive disease caused by aplastic anemia. Since then, the team has played in Drew’s honor, and Rushton tries to teach his players how to handle life’s roughest storms.
“The message is you’re not a victim,” Rushton said. “That’s a good message for me to try to deliver because if anybody wanted to play the victim card, it could be me. … You got to keep going in life.”
Drew’s brother Conner, a sophomore at Steamboat Springs High School who is a member of the Vikings, said playing hockey has helped him grieve and he remembers his brother every time he steps onto the ice.
“There’s pictures of him everywhere around here,” Conner said while standing in the lobby of Howelsen Ice Arena. “I think of him a lot.”
The Viking philosophy
The 26 players have fully embraced the Vikings philosophy. They work hard, have discipline and are held accountable for their actions. Rushton said he doesn’t want to just create good hockey players, but good people, so he doesn’t limit his lessons to Xs and Os. He said he’ll talk about what it takes to be a good student, a good employee, and even a good father, because it’s all related.
“I coach hockey, but that’s just the medium through which I reach the kids,” he said. “In every locker room, I try to throw in a proverb, not to try to make them Christian or anything, just like, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another.’ Then I’ll say, ‘So what that means is, the harder you work out on the ice, the harder your teammate will work, because he’ll see you working hard.’”
Rushton doesn’t require players to pay to join the team. He covers all expenses. He said that way, they don’t feel entitled for playing time. They have to earn it and take responsibility for what they do with the team.
Since there are 26 players and only 20 can dress for a game, six players are scratched for each contest.
“At first, everybody didn’t understand why I’d scratch them for being two minutes later for practice, but now, they’ve all bought into it,” Rushton said. “Whenever somebody gets on the bus, say a minute late, everybody yells ‘scratch!’, just as a joke you know.”
Rushton said he doesn’t care about wins or losses, but the team has been winning. A lot. Of the 22 teams in the Colorado Prep Hockey League, the Vikings are the No. 2 seed going into the final tournament. On Friday, Nov. 15 they faced off with Columbine and fell 3-1, putting them in the league third-place game on Saturday.
Being the No. 2 seed is special in its own right. When Drew played hockey, he wore No. 2. To further remember him and his love of the game, the captain of the Vikings wears that number. This fall, the privilege went to Steamboat Springs High School senior Griffin Maltby.
“It’s a big honor having the opportunity to wear No. 2 and represent Drew,” Maltby said. “It’s nice to have in mind that I’m doing it for someone. It feels good to have that extra boost.”
The message of the Vikings is spreading across Steamboat.
Mountain Tap Brewery is creating a Viking Red amber ale-lager hybrid that will be available Friday, Dec. 13, until they run out. A dollar a pint will benefit the Vikings program. Mountain Tap will also sell commemorative glassware with the Vikings logo.
“The Rushton family, they’ve been coming into Mountain Tap since we opened,” said Rich Tucciarone, co-owner and brewmaster. “They’re kind of friends of Mountain Tap. We knew the family, and we knew what they were going through with Drew last year before he passed away. We were kicking some ideas around and decided to brew a beer.”
In January, a youth hockey team from Denmark will come to Steamboat and play against the Vikings as well as take in a day on the slopes at Steamboat Resort and head to Mountain Tap for a private party.
“The community that hosted Drew, we had a good time there,” Rushton said. “They were thinking about sending a team over to America just to play and see stuff. I’ve convinced them to come here.”
They’ll even get to experience a morning at an American school before hopping on a plane back to Europe. Rushton said he hopes to make an international visit a yearly tradition as another way to share the love of the game and remember his son.
“You’ve got to carry on something in somebody’s memory,” Rushton said. “You don’t just mourn it and just act like a victim, but you want to remember it. For us, my son loved hockey.”