Minnesota hockey player is honored with USA Hockey award

Rylynn Zanon basically grew up in hockey rinks. However, because of several mild issues that affected her physical and cognitive […]

Rylynn Zanon is shown on the ice.

Rylynn Zanon basically grew up in hockey rinks.

However, because of several mild issues that affected her physical and cognitive development, it took her some time to hit the ice for good and find her own place in the game.  Now more than seven years into her playing career, Zanon was honored by USA Hockey with the 2024 Disabled Athlete of the Year Award. The award was presented June 7 at the at the 2024 USA Hockey President’s Awards Dinner in Denver..  That came as quite a surprise to her.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it,” Zanon said. “We were all pretty shocked.”

Receiving the award won’t slow down her drive to get better, as she continues to work on her game.  “I feel like I’ve gotten better throughout the years,” she said. “We’ve done more drills, like game drills and just doing a lot more stick-handling drills.”

Growing up, Zanon certainly didn’t have to look far to find a hockey role model. Her father, Greg Zanon, spent nine years as a defenseman in the NHL.

“She was [his] No. 1 fan for a long time,” said Jen Zanon, Rylynn’s mother. “We bounced around with him for a few years while he did his thing. And during that time, she did take some skating lessons when she was 5 or 6.”

Rylynn Zanon posing for a photo on the rink

As Jen remembered, that was a challenge for her daughter.

“It wasn’t really her thing when she first started,” Jen said. “She enjoyed being at the rink, but the actual skating part of it was a little bit difficult and uncomfortable for her.”
Jen noted that Zanon hadn’t developed physically the way typical children do. Just finding skates for Zanon was difficult.  According to Jen, part of the problem might have been having her daughter start skating in full hockey gear at the outset.  “It was right into you’re learning to skate as a hockey player,” Jen said. “It was maybe not the best route to go with that, but that’s the route we took.”

Zanon got off the ice and was content with watching her dad, sister and brother play for a time. After the family moved to Minnesota, she finally got an opportunity to play at age 12.

The family saw one of Zanon’s friends play with the Minnesota Special Hockey Program. They then quickly signed Zanon up to the program as well.

Zanon, now 19, continues to play in the program, which partners directly with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

Jen noted that the league matches players of equal talent on an A, B or C line. She said Zanon typically plays on the A or B line.  “The league itself is incredible,” Jen said. “It’s open to anybody and everybody regardless of age. I think the minimum age is 8, but there is no maximum age. It’s open to everybody regardless of their abilities. I don’t foresee her walking away from it anytime soon, as long as it’s available for her to continue playing.”

Through the opportunity with Minnesota Special Hockey, Zanon thrived in her new community, making new friends, learning leadership skills and witnessing the power of inclusion firsthand. The skills she learned on the ice have propelled her to new heights both on and off the ice.  She was a four-year captain of the Stillwater Area High School Ponies adapted floor hockey team and a three-year captain of the adapted soccer team, leading both squads to state titles in 2021-22, and a repeat title with the floor hockey team in 2022-23.  She was co-president of the high school’s  TRUST Club, an all-inclusive after-school club that brings students with and without disabilities together.  She had to balance hockey with her first year at Century College this year. Zanon is studying special education and made the dean’s list.

“It wasn’t hard, knowing that hockey was on Sundays,” she said. “I usually didn’t have much homework on Sundays, so it was nice not to have to worry about that. I can enjoy just going to hockey.”

Zanon also competes in the Special Olympics track and field program. She runs sprints and does the standing long jump.

Zanon serves Minnesota Special Olympics away from the track, as well. She is on its board of directors and is a co-vice president. Last summer, she became a Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassador, promoting inclusive opportunities for children through sports.

“It’s a two-year program,” said Zanon of the ambassadorship. “This year we’ve been to Washington, D.C., and now at the end of June, we’re going out to Madison [Wisconsin] for a conference.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc. with additional information from USA Hockey.

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