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John’s Journal: Hockey And Mental Health In New Prague

“It Should Be Part Of Every Night And Every Day”

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2022 - 4:07 PM


Scott Prendergast, from an organization called Minding Your Mind, speaks to parents of New Prague hockey players.

NEW PRAGUE – After a hard-fought and disappointing loss in a jam-packed arena on a frigid winter night, some veteran members of the New Prague boys hockey team stood in a hallway outside their locker room for a postgame interview.

The discussion wasn’t centered on the Trojans’ 6-0 loss to Bloomington Jefferson in the Metro West Conference game. There were no mentions of the Jaguars’ four-goal second period, the Trojans’ inability to score on three power plays, or the fact that the same teams would meet the next evening in Bloomington.

The sole topic was mental health.

“Mental health is something that I know a lot of athletes, and hockey players especially, struggle with throughout the whole entire country,” said senior Charlie Turnberg. “And it's really easy just to get down in the dumps and it affects how you are as a person, what your mentality is.”

The hockey game had been designated as a time to talk about mental health and suicide awareness. It was “Shut Out The Stigma Night” as well as a fundraiser for the Duck Cup Memorial Fund (, a New Prague non-profit organization. The group was started by classmates of Dale “Duck” VonBank, who struggled with mental health and took his own life in 2001, the year after they graduated from New Prague High School.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans age 10-34, with one in six youth from 6 to 17 experiencing mental health disorders each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“In general, there can be a stigma around mental health and misunderstandings about what mental health is,” said New Prague boys hockey coach Brad Drazan, a 2008 Trojans graduate who teaches fifth grade in the district. “The assumption was that if there was a mental health issue you needed to be hospitalized or be out of school or whatever. What we try to get across to our players is that everyone experiences mental health and some of us are lucky enough to have a skill set to cope with it.”

One of the Duck Cup’s major events is an annual golf outing that raises funds for the organization. A hockey game in February is the polar opposite of an outdoor summer gathering, but the theme was the same. There were public-address announcements about mental health, fans purchased hundreds of “Shut Out The Stigma” stocking caps, wrist bands and can holders, and made donations that went toward 250 small plastic ducks that were thrown from the bleachers toward center ice between the second and third periods in the aptly named “Chuck-A-Duck” contest.

“I think (mental health awareness is) very important to society because obviously there's so many factors in our world today, especially in our age group,” said Trojans junior John Schmidt. “And I think Duck Cup does a really good job of seeing the need and doing something about it. Tonight was a very important night to spread the awareness, but I think it should be part of every night and every day.”

Duck Cup has grown steadily over the years, with speakers making presentations to student groups in New Prague and other area schools. They are working with 30 schools this year, extending their positive reach all over Minnesota and to several schools in Iowa. In the past year, Duck Cup has reached more than 30,000 people, promoting the message that “It’s OK to not be OK.”

“It's been amazing,” said Duck Cup executive director Sara Jutz. “We receive a lot of feedback from counselors and social workers, especially this year. And they have said that what Duck Cup has done for them is not only the power of storytelling, but it's given kids the tools to know what to do if they're in crisis, or if their friends are in crisis. It's very emotional.”

Duck Cup brought in a speaker for several days around the hockey game. Scott Prendergast, from an organization in Pennsylvania called Minding Your Mind (, spoke separately with the New Prague girls and boys hockey teams. Between the junior varsity and varsity boys games against Bloomington Jefferson, he spent time with New Prague hockey parents in a private space.

“It's OK to reach out for the help that you need,” he said. Prendergast also talked about what he called “emergency joys,” small things that can be used to bring quiet joy. He said his emergency joys included watching Seinfeld reruns, listening to Frank Sinatra music (his mother’s favorite when he was young) and eating his favorite cereal, Honey Bunches of Oats.

He told the parents that the best thing they could do was talk with their children. “You can do it,” he told them.

After the game, in the hallway outside the locker room, Trojans senior Will Anderson was grateful for what had taken place but stressed the importance of making mental-health efforts a daily focus.

“It’s not just tonight that we should be worrying about it,” he said. “It's like, all the time. Tonight it was a big deal, so people know that mental health is actually important. It was great that the Duck Cup helped us. It was great.”

The New Prague High School boys hockey program has six coaches, and four of them are former Trojans captains, including Drazan.

“I feel good about what we’re doing,” he said. “I’ve been with a lot of these kids since they were in elementary school. And this is why you live in the community you do. The support was unbelievable.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at  

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