Despite an almost unhealthy comfort with the concept, nothing could prepare the Buffalo Sabres for what they encountered during a team visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the United States Army's major trauma hospital in Europe.
Wounded warriors from wars in Iran and Afghanistan -- as well as military bases throughout Europe -- come through Landstuhl before they are sent to the United States for further treatment.
During their visit, players broke into three groups and visited various patients throughout the hospital, signing autographs, posing for pictures and listening to stories the various soldiers had to tell.
"It was a huge eye-opener," defenseman Mike Weber told NHL.com. "These are the men and women that make it possible to do what we do. I'm extremely excited to meet these people and hear their stories."
"It was a huge eye-opener. These are the men and women that make it possible to do what we do. I'm extremely excited to meet these people and hear their stories." -- Mike Weber
Weber, one of five Americans on the team, relayed one story in which a soldier arrived at Landstuhl after severely injuring his hand in a firefight in Afghanistan when the 400-pound door of a vehicle in his convey closed on it and broke several bones in the hand.
The soldier, who worked with Special Forces units throughout Afghanistan to help protect villages from the Taliban, was helping people out of a vehicle that had struck an improvised explosive device (IED) as the convey returned to base from a 36-hour mission.
As the soldier told the story, Weber, Christian Ehrhoff and Tomas Vanek listened raptly, occasionally asking a question to draw out another part of the tale.
"Sometimes the best thing we can do is listen to their stories, shake hands and thank them for what they do for us," Weber said.
Weber said he comes from a military family, noting his grandfather and great-grandfather were warriors and that he has a brother in the Air Force Reserve. For him, the examples of heroism, as well as the physical toll it exacted, was sobering.
"You don't think about these things or see that on your local news channel," he said. "To be able to hear these stories is truly special and heartfelt and emotional."
2011 COMPUWARE NHL PREMIERE
Concussion issues bench HechtShawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor
Jochen Hecht was looking forward to playing in his hometown when the Sabres visited Mannheim, Germany, but a recurrence of the concussion issues that plagued him last season won't allow that to happen. READ MORE ›
Tyler Myers and Jochen Hecht were among a group of players that visited Army Sgt. Matthew Goodrich from Hartford, Vt. -- which he called "Bruins country."
The players, though, did not hold Goodrich's allegiances against him, talking to him as he propped his broken ankle on his bed.
Goodrich smiled as he received signed hats and pucks from each of the players.
"Thanks for stopping by; it means a lot," Goodrich said as the players moved on to the next room.
In a sea of bated breath and misty eyes, there were some light moments shared between the players, the patients and the care providers.
Sgt. Paul Zuendel, from Broome County, N.Y., served as a guide for one of the three groups. During one of the first stops, Zuendel made an innocent observation.
"I guess hockey players aren't the physical monsters I thought they were," he said, laughing.
"What do you mean," Vanek asked, flexing his muscles a bit as he laughed. "It's just the huge jerseys (that make us look smaller)."
In the physical therapy room, the players talked to a soldier as he went through work on his shoulder. Asked what happened, the soldier replied that he had surgery recently.
"Surgery? I've had a couple of those myself," Weber said, drawing laughs from his teammates.
The two-hour tour ended with a visit to the USO Warrior Center, a recreational house where wounded soldiers can socialize, watch TV or read.
On this day it was full of soldiers -- and their families -- hunting down autographs or a moment of interaction with their favorite players.
Marine Cpl. Andrew Cobb, who works with the Marine Liaison Office at LRMC, already had a stack of signed pictures as he took a photo with two Sabres in which he might have had the biggest smile in a room full of them.
"I grew up in Jamestown (N.Y.), and in our area, everyone is a huge Sabres fan," Cobb told NHL.com. "I went to school in Pittsburgh and the Penguins are our enemy. That was just miserable, absolutely miserable. I have been a Sabres fan from the beginning, from the foot-in-the-crease against the Stars (in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final) to everything since then.
"It's pretty exciting -- especially when it is your hometown hockey team. It's like a little taste of home for us and that is awesome."