As if third-grader Breanna Hansen wasn’t already nervous, preparing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in front of thousands of elementary-age schoolmates at the start of Wednesday’s Rapid City Rush Education Day hockey game.

But those nerves quickly turned into a joyous outpouring of tears when her mother, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joni Hansen, fresh from a long deployment to the Middle East, surprised her at center ice at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena.

“I was happy,” said Breanna, clinging to her mom’s side after the emotional reunion.

Breanna clutched a wireless microphone and stood on a strip of carpet at center ice, accompanied by Black Hawk Elementary Principal Holly Yamada and teacher, Charlie Starkweather, during pregame ceremonies.

Joni, in hiding nearby, her Air Force fatigues camouflaged by a long white Rush T-shirt, waited for the right moment.

Just as Breanna was ready to start the pledge, arena announcer Jay Davis interrupted, saying there was someone else wishing to join them.

Breanna’s eyes went wide as Joni strode toward her. She jumped into her mother’s outstretched arms as the torrent of tears followed.

Breanna then had to gather herself, reciting the pledge in a clear, strong voice in spite of the shock of seeing her mother for the first time in months. “It was kind of tough, because I was nervous,” she said afterward.

The reunion came to be with Joni Hansen returning to Ellsworth Air Force Base following a six-month deployment with a refueling squadron in Qatar.

Originally planning a more private mother-daughter get-together, Joni was to pick up her daughter after school, but with the day coinciding with the Rush's Education Day festivities, husband and father Josh Hansen worked with school district officials to make the reunion a bit more public.

“It morphed into something else,” Joni said. “In front of 5,000 people.”

The soldout crowd attending the Rush’s first morning game was the result of a partnership with Rapid City Area Schools to promote reading.

Rush players made classroom visits to read to students and promote reading-related contests in the weeks leading up to the game, attended by 3,450 Rapid City area students among 4,000 students from the region.

Students enjoyed free admission, thanks to seats donated by Rush season ticket holders and additional sponsorship from Vast Broadband and Black Hills Energy.

The Rush didn’t disappoint, defeating the Utah Grizzlies 6-3. The students kept up their end with cacophonous cheering from the opening puck-drop.

Joni Hansen said she had seen one other hockey game, but this was the first she, Josh and Breanna had attended as a family, on a day they won’t soon forget.

“We wanted to make it a lasting memory with Breanna,” she said.

And with that special moment, another mission accomplished.

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