Moments before the puck was dropped to begin a game between Landon and Georgetown Prep on Friday at Rockville Ice Arena, an announcement rang through the speakers, quieting the crowd as players from both teams formed a circle on the ice.
“You never know how someone is really doing until you ask them,” the public address announcer said, “and that’s really important — just letting people know you are there for them and knowing they are there for you.”
Setting aside their rivalry for a few moments, the Bears and Little Hoyas — each sporting “Shoulder Check” patches on their jerseys — put their hands on a neighboring shoulder as part of a campaign to reduce the stigma associated with vulnerability.
The moment, sponsored by Shoulder Check, an initiative advocating for mental health awareness particularly among hockey players and other student-athletes, was brief but effective. Rowdy students in the bleachers went silent and joined the players making commitments to “reach out, check in, make contact.”
For Reid Pehrkon of Landon and Dillon Moneypenny of Georgetown Prep, it was more than an abstract promise. It was a way to honor the legacy of a friend and former teammate, Hayden Thorsen, who took his own life in 2022. He was 16.
“He was the biggest guy I’d ever seen,” Pehrkon said, “but he was a teddy bear.”
“Hayden was just a light for me,” said Moneypenny, a junior right wing. “Whenever I really had anything that I wanted to talk about or that I felt like I couldn’t talk about with anyone else, Hayden was the first person that I’d go to.”
Moneypenny met Thorsen while playing baseball in elementary school in Brooklyn before they joined the same club hockey team; Pehrkon encountered him commuting to New Jersey and Connecticut for games in middle school. Ever since Thorsen’s father, Rob, founded the HT40 Foundation in the wake of his son’s death — Hayden wore No. 40 on the ice — both have been core members of the organization that started the Shoulder Check initiative, helping to plan events and searching for opportunities to bring the message to their high school communities.
For Friday, Pehrkon and Moneypenny took inspiration from Shoulder Check’s launch showcase, a fundraising scrimmage in Stamford, Conn., in August that brought together NHL players including New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider, Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras and Florida Panthers goalie Spencer Knight.
First, they would need buy-in from coaches and teammates. After getting approval from school administrators, Pehrkon and Moneypenny worked with Rob Thorsen to arrange a dinner the night before the game in Rockville, where both teams could learn about the initiative and hear Hayden’s story.
Amid the awkwardness of sharing a meal with his biggest rivals, Moneypenny went to the microphone to talk about who Hayden was, how excited his youth hockey coach was to have such a big guy in the net and how supportive Hayden was to anyone in need.
Pehrkon went up next. Fighting back tears, he called on his teammates and opponents to become the kind of presence Hayden was on and off the ice.
Finally, Rob Thorsen explained the significance of the Shoulder Check, which is meant to go beyond a simple “How’s it going?” by encouraging authentic connection and conversations about mental health.
“We received tons and tons of letters and anecdotes and stories that were shared mostly from Hayden’s friends,” Rob Thorsen said. “And a lot of the letters asked the same question: Who’s going to do what Hayden did for us now that he’s gone? … He was just a hands-on-shoulder guy. He was a bring-people-together guy.”
For Landon Coach Alex Parker, who also spoke at the dinner, hearing Pehrkon talk to his teammates about mental health was important.
“I think they’re really proud of Reid,” Parker said. “… For him to be that vulnerable and open up about his experiences with Hayden and why the organization’s important to him … it was something that hit home for the boys, and I think they certainly rallied around that.”
Eventually, it was time to hit the ice. What started as a moment to check in with friends quickly turned into an opportunity to body-check rivals.
The Bears (11-2-2) put up two early goals, but the Little Hoyas (8-5-1) took control in the second period to tie the score. Midway through the third, with his team up by one and on the power play, Pehrkon found an angle and scored to ice a 4-2 Landon win.
As much as the result was important in the Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League standings, Pehrkon and Moneypenny acknowledged the bigger reasons that brought their teams together.
“When I was first dealing with everything [after Hayden’s death], finding someone to talk to you, it’s really hard,” Moneypenny said. “And I kind of had to get past that mental barrier of, you know, how can I find someone to talk to without in my mind always thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so weak for doing this’?”
“I’m hoping that our community here in the D.C. area is able to get that idea,” Pehrkon said, “that it’s okay not to be okay.”