Alex Gullingsrud’s first glimpse of sled hockey was a video he saw last fall of a USA vs. Canada Paralympic sled hockey game.
He watched closely as the best players in the world propelled themselves across the ice, and he wondered if he’d be able to maneuver as swiftly and effortlessly as they did. His parents asked if he’d like to give it a try.
“Are these the people I’d be playing against?” Alex asked.
Alex learned he could start playing with a local sled hockey team, and instantly discovered a passion that’s helped him navigate unthinkable challenges. Less than a year after seeing that first game, Alex Gullingsrud has been named the 2023 USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year. The award recognizes outstanding perseverance and dedication by a disabled hockey player through demonstrating the ability to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of excellence, both on and off the ice. Alex is the youngest player to ever win the USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year award.
“This award isn’t about the best technical skills on the ice or who scores the most goals or saves the most shots,” said Toni Gillen, Minnesota Diversified Hockey Director to USA Hockey. “It's really about the overall person and what they bring to their team, what they bring to their sport and what they bring to their community.”
Despite his young age, Alex epitomizes courage and bravery, all while having his sights set on becoming a Paralympian.
But just a few years ago, nothing about Alex’s future was certain.
Hoping for a miracle
During the summer of 2021, Alex started complaining of leg pain. Knowing their son was an active 8-year-old who played a lot of basketball and baseball, Alex’s parents, Mike and Nikki, thought he might be experiencing growing pains or an overuse injury.
They took him to a chiropractor, but after a few weeks, the chiropractor recommended X-rays to find the root of the issue. They learned Alex had a mass on his hip and drove from their home in Red Lake Falls, Minn., to Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo for further testing.
“We left Sanford in Fargo at about 4 o'clock on a Friday,” Nikki said. “A few hours later, by 6 o'clock, Mayo Clinic called and said we needed to be in Rochester by Monday.”
Alex was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He had a softball-sized tumor growing inside of his hip and another tumor on one of his lungs.
“Within the 45-minute appointment at Mayo, I went from ‘just get the tumor out’ to ‘can they save his leg?’ to, ‘we just need to do whatever we have to do to save his life,’” Nikki recalled.
That fall, Alex started chemotherapy in Fargo. But by the end of October, they learned it wasn’t working, and he underwent major surgery to remove the tumor in his pelvic bone and to amputate his right leg and most of his right hip.
After just five days, Alex was up and walking with the help of a walker and crutches.
“He's been dealt quite a hand,” Nikki said. “Instead of wondering ‘why me?’ it was ‘OK, I'm still here. I'm going to make the most of the time I have and just be thankful and grateful for what I've got.’”
Putting up a fight
Following his amputation surgery, Alex began a new regimen of chemotherapy to fight the tumor on his lung and also underwent surgery to clean out one of his lungs. A week after the lung surgery, his parents went into his oncology appointment in Fargo, hoping for good news.
Instead, it turned into their worst nightmare. Nothing was working.
The oncologist left the room to give them time to process the news. A few moments later, Mike’s phone rang.
“It was the Mayo surgeon,” Nikki said. “And she was excited like we had never heard the Mayo people excited before. She said, ‘You're not going to believe this. We just got the biopsy back. The chemo is working, and everything else in there was just an infection.’”
They let out a huge sigh of relief. Alex would just need to finish his current round of chemotherapy.
“While talking to one of his surgeons, they just said that his story is the closest thing they've ever seen to a miracle in medicine,” Nikki said. “We told them it was because we had what seemed like everyone in the world praying for him.”
Discovering a passion
By the summer of 2022, Alex had finished chemotherapy. He was recovering physically but needed an outlet to keep him active and busy.
He tried wheelchair baseball and loved it. That’s where he met Bill Grommesh, Executive Director of HOPE Inc., which provides adaptive programming to children and adults. Grommesh quickly realized Alex’s potential and suggested he come to sled hockey practice.
“I immediately recognized Alex's competitive nature,” Grommesh said. “It was obvious that he would need that competitive interaction, and sled hockey would provide the opportunity to shoot for that.”
Alex gave it a shot. Just a few weeks into practices, he was enjoying it—and he was really good.
“His skills improved so quickly that we needed to move him from the recreational team to the competitive team,” Grommesh said. “He’s committed, he’s supportive and he’s driven. In such a short time, he’s made huge strides. He’s a quality young man with a great future in sled hockey.”
Alex and his family happily made the 100-mile drive each way to sled hockey practice in the Fargo-Moorhead area every Saturday they could. Not only did Alex continue to sharpen his skills each time he was on the ice, but he was also genuinely happy.
“When he started sled hockey in November, it was like another world,” Nikki said. “He was part of a team and getting to be competitive. He was improving, and he was finding purpose again.”
Living with purpose
Since finishing chemotherapy in June 2022, all of Alex’s scans have been clean. He was fitted for a prosthetic leg last summer, and he’s grown so much that he’s going to get a new one fitted soon.
He’s an energetic kid with a kind heart and an unwavering desire to go above and beyond to help others.
Alex is gracious with his time and often volunteers in his community—helping with Meals on Wheels, the Red Lake County Food Shelf, his church, the local nursing home and youth basketball camp. He enjoys playing with his friends and three siblings.
He assisted the Mayo Clinic Physical Therapy Department with a video for patients going through an amputation and was able to help another child in Fargo deal with her accident, amputation and the many emotions that follow.
“What he has accomplished in just 10 years of life, some people never accomplish in their lifetime,” Gillen said. “For USA Hockey to recognize that at his age, I think, will only give him more determination to continue to make a difference.”
Alex knows that may not be easy, but he’s determined to make the most of what he has.
“He’s had to overcome a lot—physically, mentally, emotionally—and he never quit,” Nikki said.
“He kept persevering down a road that you pray nobody ever has to take.”
That road has allowed him to stop and meet some of his most treasured friends, and become a part of an extraordinary community. At the 2023 Minnesota Hockey Awards Celebration, Alex was recognized with a Diversified Hockey grant for his determination, commitment and perseverance through adversity, and his eagerness to give back to those around him.
“It's unbelievable how much Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey have embraced us right from the start,” Nikki said. “To be a part of something and belong to something bigger than themselves, that they can find a reason to keep going on and be competitive and set goals, it's huge. It makes a difference to Alex and to our family in an incredible way.”
Alex continues to live each day with purpose—never meeting an obstacle he can’t overcome.
“He has more ability than anybody I know, and obviously he hasn't let cancer stop him,” Gillen said. “He's not going to let anything stop him.”