VIRGINIA, Minn. (FOX 9) - The tight-knit hockey community on the Iron Range is rallying around a teen who was recently injured in car crash that involved a moose.
With her infectious smile, Katie Johnson's coach calls her the "backbone" of Rock Ridge High School Girls Hockey.
"She was one of our really strong defenseman. Certainly a huge part of the team," said head coach Patricia Elsmore. "It's really hard to not have her on the ice with us every day and knowing that she's going through this really tough time."
Elsmore was shocked to learn Johnson was injured in a car crash on Oct 28. She was a passenger in a car when it hit a moose on Highway 53 heading north toward Eveleth and Virginia, Minnesota.
The Minnesota State Patrol said Johnson’s injuries were non-life threatening, but she had to be airlifted an hour away to Essentia St. Mary’s in Duluth. She suffered injuries to her neck, back and spine.
"The focus certainly is about her being able to heal. She has a surgery coming up this week on her back and then she probably will require some more surgeries after that," Elsmore said.
Johnson will have a long road ahead in a rehab facility learning to walk again, but her family and friends remain so thankful she survived the crash.
"Driving by (the crash scene) every day certainly is a reminder of how lucky that she is and we are that she's still here with us. Even though you know she has some pretty serious injuries," Elsmore said.
The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office has responded to two moose vs. car crashes in two weeks. Undersheriff Jason Akerson said there is typically an increase in these types of crashes between October and December.
"They're dark (in color) so … they're much harder to see at night than even a deer," he explained.
Law enforcement officers recommend that drivers do not swerve if they see wild animals. Instead, they should reduce their speed, beep their horns, and turn on their flashers to alert other drivers. They also typically travel in pairs.
Akerson said another challenge with moose is due to their size, hitting one generally causes more damage than hitting a deer because of where the impact happens.
"A lot of times they're colliding with the windshield or the roof as opposed to the front end when you hit a deer, so in that respect, that's a lot more dangerous," he said.
An online fundraiser has been set up to help with medical bills and other expenses for Johnson’s family. A benefit with raffles and silent auctions is also planned for her on Nov. 22 from 6-10 p.m. at the Eveleth Hippodrome. Donations can also be sent to the First National Bank of Gilbert to "The Katie Johnson Benefit Fund."
Elsmore said the hockey team will also make bracelets and sweatshirts, and honor Johnson with patches on their jerseys.