I’ll be honest, when I stepped on the ice I never would have imagined a sport as physical and aggressive as ice hockey could somehow have a calming, therapeutic effect on the previous sometimes violent world of U.S. military veterans.
But the locker room laughter, the intensity of the drills and the camaraderie experienced during Friday night’s Philadelphia Flyers Warriors hockey training camp session at the Skate Zone showed me all I needed to know.
Former Flyer and current Alumni Association president Brad Marsh, who helps coach the Warriors, was nice enough to invite me to participate in the team’s season-opening night of practices.
Marsh wanted me to chronicle the magic of substituting sticks and pucks for the far more dangerous equipment of the military.
Basically, the Warriors are there to help veterans — both physically and mentally – in need of a purpose to keep moving forward.
It was eye-opening to say the least. Many of these former U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy personnel only took up the game a year or two ago and yet on Friday night they were skating rings around me.
Keep in mind, I was put in with the Tier 2 guys and was challenged to keep up. I took part in some of the simpler drills but found a seat on the bench when it came to high-speed backwards skating. That’s when college hockey days at Colorado State University from the last century seemed like a very distant memory.
There was plenty of kidding, too. Especially about my outdated 20-year-old wood hockey sticks, which all but disappeared at the turn of the century in favor of the high-tech composite models.
But it was all good-natured fun. And it reminded me just how much I miss all the teasing, the raunchy jokes and so forth in locker rooms.
In a way, this might be the main reason why hockey offers veterans a communal connection back to the days of their service time. If that tenure included a traumatic experience (how could every day of a two-year stint in Afghanistan not be?), this sport could allow people to vent their emotions.
Keeping the mood especially light is goaltender Brittany Shortall, a Warminster native and William Tennent High School graduate. An Air Force veteran, she’s one of just four women on the team, dresses right in there with the guys and even brought her beloved service dog, Rebel, along for the ride.
When I skipped a drill or two, I would jump over the boards and onto the bench. Rebel, situated nearby in the penalty box, looked over with a sad expression that said, “Sorry, old sport, your best days are behind you!’’
Shortall, who currently is majoring in radiology at Bucks County Community College, said ice hockey can be beneficial in a variety of ways.
“When I first came out for the team, these guys welcomed me with open arms, they were so accepting it was amazing,’’ said Shortall, who was stationed in Minot, North Dakota and Dover, Delaware during her tour of duty. “It’s daunting at first but once you’re on the ice, these guys don’t care.’’
The salty locker room language all plays into the upbeat feeling.
“For me, hockey is therapeutic because I have a lot of anger in life,’’ said the 26-year-old Shortall. “Going out on the ice and stopping these shots that guys think should have gone in, it fuels me to keep going. It’s amazing when you win a game and see those other guys’ faces. They can’t believe their shots were saved by a girl. It gives me a sense of purpose in life.’’
Kensington native Kyle Hoffman, now a resident of Quakertown, served in the U.S. Army. He deployed in 2011-12 for Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Kuwait.
Hoffman’s family has been devoted to the Flyers for decades and that’s what spurred his interest in hockey.
“It’s always been a part of my life,’’ explained Hoffman, a forward. “My mom has a picture of my older brother standing with Ron Hextall at the airport.’’
The 32-year-old Hoffman, who is now a union carpenter, appreciates what the Flyers have done by organizing and sponsoring this project. He says it’s all about the relationships among the players.
“Everyday (in the military) you have this brotherhood, this camaraderie,’’ he said. “It’s hard to replace that. But this is the next best thing.’’
Kevin Black, 42, hails from Olney and spent 10 years in the Navy. He was already in the service in the late ‘90s, then re-enlisted after 9/11. Later, he served in a navel convoy to watchdog Iraqi oilfields.
Black had not played hockey until a couple years ago when his youngest son took up the sport. He asked dad to learn how to play the game in order to help him.
The Black family, which resides in Barto/Berks County, now is totally involved in the sport.
“It’s nice not to have to worry about stress when you come out here,’’ said Black, who’s now a police patrolman. “Following the drills, the physicality part, it’s not easy.’’
I can vouch for that, particularly the one where you had to skate in a zig-zag motion without allowing your skates to leave the ice.
“But you never worry about someone making fun of you (in a bad way),’’ Black said. “You heard the salty language in the locker room. Only we get that. And everything on the ice, it’s only positive stuff. It’s about pulling everybody up.’’
The Warriors will host this year’s Warrior Classic, a national tournament, in South Jersey from Nov. 5-7. It promises to be a great time. The Warriors won their division of the Classic in Vegas a couple years ago.
“We’re in different levels of fundraising right now,’’ said captain Devon Richio. “First prize for the raffle is a pair of season tickets to the Flyers. We also have jerseys from Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson. We rely on donations. Toyota is a big sponsor. Our goal is therapeutic means of rehabilitation through hockey. We’re always looking for someone to help us out.’’
Donations can be made by visiting @flyerswarriorhockey.
All the people I met on Friday night are perfect for hockey and hockey is perfect for them.
You know the old expression: Who would you want to have in a foxhole with you in the heat of battle?
My answer: Every last player from the Warriors.