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Humbled in the presence of a hero

Tuesday, 06.03.2008 / 9:22 AM / 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor


Thomas Church and wife, Marcy, were presented with an autographed Nicklas Lidstrom jersey prior to Game 5.
DETROIT -- For those that make a living at hockey, the game sometimes becomes nothing more than a business.

Wrapped up in our day-to-day duties, we sometimes forget how magical the game is for the fans that we serve.

Monday night, before Game 5, a man, no make that a hero, by the name of Thomas Church reminded me once again how powerful our game can be for those who love it.

After all, anything that can humble a hero must be pretty special, no?

Let me explain.

Thomas Church is a 26-year-old Captain in the United States Army. Presently serving as an instructor at Ranger School at Camp James E. Rudder, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Before that, Church saw 16 months of duty in Afghanistan as a member of the 10th Mountain Division.

He has served repeatedly and bravely in a war zone and that, in anybody's book, makes him a hero. But Monday night, as a guest of NHL.com at Game 5, Church looked like anything but the steely-nerved combat vet that he is.

Instead, he looked like the star-struck hockey fan that he is, no different than the majority of fans who packed "The Joe" for Game 5. Church grew up as a Red Wing fan, living in the small town of Kentwood, just outside Grand Rapids, Mich. His obsession with the Wings has only grown as he has gotten older.

In Afghanistan, the Wings were one of the things that kept him buttoned-down.

"Hockey was a release for me over there," Church said, saying he watched as many games as he could on the Armed Forces Network. "Anything to get away from the hardship of what we had to deal with. We would wake up in the morning and go outside the wire and not know what the day would bring. So, when you made it back inside the wire, you just wanted to relax."

Church would do that by sitting down and watching a game -- preferably a Wings game.

"I got to see the Wings play, the Wings win and it was like I was back home," Church said.

But even in his wildest dreams in the barren, inhospitable desert of war-torn Afghanistan, Church couldn't envision a day like Monday ever coming. He was rightfully treated like the hero that he is Monday at Joe Louis Arena.

Yet Church didn't understand what all the fuss was about and why more people weren't paying more attention to the real stars -- Wings TV announcer Mickey Redmond, current GM Ken Holland and former Wings coach Scotty Bowman -- who walked past him in the bowels of the arena before the game.

Then he was presented with a signed Nicklas Lidstrom jersey, which was a gift from Red Wings management.

Church's jaw literally dropped -- "He does that all the time," laughed his wife, Marcy -- and his hands shook as he tentatively held the jersey in front of him. He didn't speak for close to 30 seconds. It was striking to see a man used to making life-and-death decisions on the battlefield so flummoxed by a simple gift of a hockey jersey.

"Nicklas Lidstrom is my favorite player," Church said, still awestruck. "He does it day in and day out. There's a reason why he is the captain. He's a quiet leader, but he gets it done on the ice."

And, Church uses those same traits to shape his own leadership skills as an Army officer.

"That's how I strive to be as a leader, too," he said. "I'm going to get the job done, just like Lidstrom. I have to be consistent like he is and we always need to win."

If Church doesn't win, something bad, and sometimes fatal, happens to him or his men. That something bad is far worse than a loss in hockey -- even if that loss comes in the Stanley Cup Final.

In a 10-minute chat before Game 5, Church reminded me of that.

But he also reminded me just how powerful the game that I love -- and the business that I cover is -- for those on the outside looking in. I thank him for delivering both those powerful lessons Monday night.


Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie