After separate deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Sgt. Michael Wichmann wasn't expecting to find too many traces of his favorite sport when he reported to Fort Benning in Georgia to serve as a motors instructor. With thousands of servicemen training and working at the famous base, the Michigan-born Wichmann didn't foresee many hockey opportunities in the heart of the south.
The 23-year-old previously was stationed at Fort Benning in 2006 and, except for the nearby Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League, didn't recall much hockey being played. He was pleasantly surprised when he returned in 2011.
"They have two rinks here and one wasn't here in 2006," Wichmann told NHL.com. "So I really was surprised there was a lot of military members here who play hockey. It's not something that you run into on a military base. A lot of guys that you talk to don't even know what hockey is. There are about 35 of us on the Fort Benning team alone."
That's right -- Fort Benning has a hockey team. And between the members of that team as well as other servicemen playing in local men's leagues, there are dozens of soldiers playing hockey in an area that doesn't have a hockey pro shop within 100 miles.
"You can't even get clear tape here," said Jacqueline Andrews, a local civilian who has helped spearhead the Fort Benning program. "The easier you make it for people to play, the easier it will happen. They've been driving to Atlanta, over 100 miles away. Apparently there is a store in Atlanta."
Helping to manage -- and playing alongside -- a growing group of military hockey players wasn't what Andrews expected she'd be doing when she returned to Fort Benning earlier this year to spend time with her family. She had grown up in the area before moving to New York years ago to work in business development. While establishing her career in the Big Apple, she fell in love with hockey. And she's brought that love back with her to Fort Benning.
Partnering with the Cottonmouths and their coach/general manager Jerome Bechard, a sixth-round pick of the Hartford Whalers in the 1989 NHL Draft who has spent the last 16 years with the club, Andrews has helped hockey grow in an unlikely place.
"I started playing at their little rink. They were going to turn it into a basketball court because nobody played," Andrews said. "I have to give the minor-league team so much credit. They have done so much to build it up. Jerome Bechard genuinely cares for what he is doing. He sees so much potential."
Andrews' efforts with Fort Benning's burgeoning hockey population have provided an infusion of young talent into the area. But they've also contributed to the culture of Fort Benning in a number of ways. Naturally, it has helped develop camaraderie between soldiers at the base. Whereas most servicemen rarely socialize outside their group, hockey has given them an opportunity to develop relationships with an array of soldiers usually separated by their unit and rank.
"There are only 40 people in my unit here. We have a new incoming commander. I didn't know who he was, but it turns out I met him at hockey," SPC Joseph Carothers said. "I knew he was a good guy right away. You get to meet the Rangers and different guys from different jobs. It makes me know a lot of people instead of the small group I work with."
If there's anyone who can attest to the power of cliques on an army base, it might be Carothers. The Pennsylvania native played club hockey at Youngstown State and Slippery Rock University before spending a year training to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist, or EOD. Tasked with diffusing explosive devices, it's one of the military's most dangerous jobs. As such, the small group is a tight one, as demonstrated by the memorial for fallen EOD specialists at EODMemorial.org.
Thanks to hockey, Carothers is learning about his peers in numerous other units. Through area men's leagues, he and his Fort Benning teammates even have developed a rapport with the civilian population, something considered extremely rare at most military bases. However, it's a testament to the power of hockey.
"Working with the rest of my unit, it definitely requires the ultimate amount of trust. If somebody messes up, you can get your teammate killed,” said Carothers, who also serves as an assistant coach with the club team at Auburn University. "Knowing that person better, it definitely helps you relax and perform your job better. Especially with the guys I work with. Trust among EOD guys is extremely important."
For the troops who have served in war zones for months at a time, the growing hockey program at Fort Benning also provides something else: a distraction. That can be hard to come by when you live on a military base.
"I know for myself it keeps my mind off things that I had in Afghanistan," Wichmann said. "There was a lot of shooting over there. It keeps my mind on the ice. I don't think about work. I think about the game and how much fun I'm having."