In a span of 10 days in early April more than 1700 players from 128 teams gathered in suburban Chicago, Illinois to take part in the USA Hockey’s Annual Disabled Hockey Festival. This by itself is note worthy, but among those 1700 players is a select few that belong to the Warriors Hockey Program. What makes Warriors Hockey teams and players different than the other groups in attendance is that the Warriors teams are 100% made up of Disabled Veterans. This growing trend is part of a larger push by the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer Disabled Veterans a healthy outlet for rehabilitation, camaraderie and physical activity. The program is funded by a grant from the VA but managed and run by teams of volunteers and players.
Big Things Start Small
The USA Hockey Warriors Program got it’s start in 2008 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. as a few rehabbing Disabled Veterans began to play pick up hockey at Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Maryland. Word of the events quickly spread and more players and even coaches began to help out and the movement gained more speed. Soon divisions, rules and full teams of sled hockey and standing hockey players and by 2011 the Disabled Veterans of America and the Fisher House were contributing grant funding for complete teams. Since then the organization has gained the support of USA Hockey, the VA, National Hockey League teams and even supporters on Capital Hill have made notable contributions.
Service Connection & Requirements
There are only a few core requirements for being able to play on one of the many USA Hockey Warrior Hockey team. The list is pretty short yet allows a wide range of Veterans to be able to play on a sanctioned team. Meeting one or more of the requirements listed below is all it takes, after looking them over you can tell pretty quickly if you pass the litmus test.
- Must have a VA disability rating of 10% or higher
- Medically discharged from Active Duty, National Guard or Reserves
- Veterans with disabilities that are a result of a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service
- Post service disabilities that are considered related or secondary to disabilities occurring in service and for disabilities presumed to be related to circumstances of military service, even though they may arise after service
Any Veteran with a disability that did not occur during military service and meets discharge eligibility
The interesting thing that many people may not know is that forming and playing on a hockey team and being in the military are very similar in many respects. You start with a room of people that you may or may not know and you begin to learn and develop together as a unit. The only difference between doing that on active duty and with the Alaska Warriors Hockey Team is that this time around most of are over 40 and full of scars and arthritis. Even those players that happen to be under the age of 40 are in the locker room because of conditions that most civilians their age can’t comprehend.
I will assume that the feeling and mood inside most of the other Warriors Hockey affiliated clubs locker rooms in the United States is very similar to my experiences here in Alaska. The teams embrace the idea that the brotherhood we all experienced in our military careers still exists in some form. Inside the room and on the ice it doesn’t matter what you rank was, branch of service or military occupation was. All that matters is that you are part of a fraternity of sorts, the Brotherhood of the DD-214. There is plenty of heckling and chirping from the benches during games and practices but at the end of the day it’s about being active, overcoming your disabilities and the fraternity we all have earned the right to belong to
New Guys, to Experienced Players, We Take Them All.
The goal of the national USA Hockey Warriors program is the same as the program I’m honored to be affiliate with, which is to reach out and connect Veterans through the game of Ice Hockey. There is zero requirement to have actually played the game before, that’s the beauty of the program. If you are a Veteran who meets one or more of the requirements listed above and have even thought of playing hockey there is a good chance there maybe a program near you to help you out. It’s never too late to learn to play organized hockey, in fact during the recent 2018 USA Hockey Disabled Festival our team played against a player who happened to be a 67 year old Vietnam War Veteran.
The Future & Growth
Each year new teams in the program being the development phase, in order to move from concept to reality it takes groups of volunteers, sponsors and people with patience and a vision. What started over a decade ago has grown to a wide network of teams of all levels. If you are interested in joining the Warriors Hockey Program as a player, coach, or sponsor check out the list below of teams from around the country that we have gathered during the latest tournament in Chicago.
Peoria Iron Sights
Chicago Blackhawk Warriors
Buffalo Sabres Warriors
Capital Beltway Warriors
Teamwork Means Sharing The Load
We learned in our military service that nothing gets done in a vacuum and the same is true about USA Hockey and the Warriors Hockey Program. I want to take this time to thank someone the sponsors who have helped make Alaska Warrior Hockey possible for myself and more than 45 other Veterans here in Alaska. Most of us agree that this team and program has either given us a new mission & focus, or snapped us out the fog we had be operating in for far too long. Sometimes it’s important that as Veterans we remember an important mantra that is emblazoned on our team banner “Not Forgotten”. Its more than a catchy phrase its our mission statement.
- Hurricane Media
- Alaska General Contractors
- Midnight Sun Brewery
- Challenge Alaska
- Alaska State Hockey Association
- Block Family Foundation
Photos by author