EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — As Tim Loney and his teammates skated around the ice, fellow pond hockey players approached and congratulated them on their service.
For how appreciative the general players were to see the military members, the Wisconsin Warriors were just as happy to be sharing the same ice on Dollar Lake at the USA Hockey/Labatt Blue Pond Hockey National Championships.
For the first time in the tournament’s 16-year history, a Warrior Division was added this year. Four teams — two from Motor City Veterans Hockey and one each from the Wisconsin Warriors and New Jersey Warriors — competed in the event.
Warriors are classified as anyone who served in the military and became disabled by being injured or wounded.
“I think it’s good for pond hockey to be able to see the disabled Warrior Division,” said Loney, vice president of business operations for the Minnesota Warriors but who played for the Wisconsin Warriors in the tournament. “We normally play under USA Disabled Hockey, and the regular public and the regular hockey world doesn’t know about us…we’ve been well received by everybody, and it’s been a lot of fun playing with my brothers and sisters in arms.”
Loney said it was extremely important for the veterans to be able to experience the event for several reasons.
“Warrior programs, in Minnesota, we’re using it to help re-integrate people back into society,” he said. “So when you look at re-integrating back into society and here we are playing with the general hockey public, we’re meeting our mission statement and we’re helping to reduce veteran suicide. It’s just a fantastic win-win.”
Ted Curtin, executive vice president of the New Jersey Warriors, was pleased seven of his veterans were able to skate in the 220-team pond hockey tournament.
“It’s a long time coming and I’m looking forward to them expanding the Warrior presence here, because it really is a great opportunity for veterans to get together and hit the ice,” Curtin said. “But more than that, it’s the camaraderie between the teams and it’s just an amazing experience to see them just gel and come together. Yeah, we have some fun playing hockey, but we’re not here for the hockey; we’re here for the camaraderie and the brotherhood.”
The Motor City Veterans Hockey had a great deal of interest from players who wanted to compete in the event. It was important for the hockey program to be part of the inaugural warrior group at nationals.
“That’s why we brought two teams out, because we really wanted to show that we’re committed and invested to growing the game for USA Hockey and helping kick this Warrior Division off in style here at Dollar Lake,” said Motor City Veterans Hockey President Mike Palmer, who also skated in the tournament.
Growing the game for military veterans is a big goal for all three organizations that participated in their first Pond Hockey National Championships.
Getting the warrior hockey program name out there and educating is paramount because there’s a segment of the population — the general public as well as veterans — that aren’t aware this discipline exists.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” Curtin said. “We were talking with some of the other teams, Wisconsin and Motor City, and we all share the same thing, just awareness and making sure that veterans know that this program’s available. It’s an opportunity for them to connect with other people that are going through the same things that they’re going through. It’s such a difficult transition from military to civilian life, and between PTSD and physical issues that they deal with and to be able to hang out with other people that get it and have experienced the same things that they experienced, it really means a lot.”
Loney was told by USA Hockey representatives that there are hopes to expand the Warrior division at next year's event.
“We’re getting the word out to the other programs around the country and letting them know to fundraise and put it on your calendar and start planning for coming out to Eagle River next year,” Loney said.
Palmer, who would like to bring a third team to next year’s tournament, plans on talking to warrior programs throughout the country.
“We’re really going to share our experiences with them,” Palmer said. “Highlight this event publicly, and bring it out like when we go to the Disabled Festival, promote a recap video and activities and really show them and share that word of mouth that this was an outstanding event for us.”
The New Jersey Warriors ended up winning this year’s division championship by going 4-0, downing the Wisconsin Warriors 11-7 in the title game.
But it wasn’t all about winning for those who had the opportunity to compete.
“For a moment, they get to forget about all the other problems in their world,” Curtin said. “For that, it’s an amazing thing.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.