Before he was an American hero, before he was the recipient of his country's highest military honor, before he was facing heavy Taliban fire in one of Afghanistan's most intense battles, Clinton Romesha was a quiet United States Army staff sergeant assigned to Fort Carson, Colo.
The shy guy from Northern California was looking for a way to get to know his fellow soldiers. That's how he discovered hockey.
"I had three really good buddies from Minnesota. Before we went over to Afghanistan, they would always talk about hockey. So I finally started catching a few games with them," said Romesha, who attended his first NHL game on Feb. 14 at Madison Square Garden. "They started explaining to me the sport of hockey. To see that and understand what you're looking at, it's just awesome to have that crash course for dummies from some pretty experienced guys who grew up in hockey."
It wasn't long before Romesha's fascination with hockey turned into an obsession. A passion was groomed by fellow staff sergeants Eric Harder and Tom Rasmussen along with platoon leader Lt. Andrew Bunderman, a Golden Gophers diehard known for occasionally wearing his University of Minnesota cap along with his fatigues.
The group enjoyed games on television at Fort Carson and watched local high school teams practice at a rink located in a nearby shopping mall. By the time Romesha joined the group to watch Minnesota play a game at nearby Colorado College, he was hooked.
"It's an amazing sport to watch. Being with the Minnesota boys, they dialed me into the Wild. Cal Clutterbuck, what a sweet hockey name," said Romesha, 31, who began to see parallels between a hockey team and his platoon. "You can see the direct correlation for teamwork. You have to hold down your sector, your zone, your assignment. Just like hockey."
Six months after beginning his crash course in hockey, Romesha and his unit were in Afghanistan.
It was there on Oct. 3, 2009, in the mountainous eastern region of the country, Romesha and 52 Americans, as part of the International Security Assistance Force stationed at Combat Outpost Keating, attempted to defend their outpost, which was under heavy fire from more than 300 Taliban fighters. With the Taliban quickly advancing, Romesha gathered his troops and began to fight back, retaking the area while calling in strategic airstrikes. He did it all with pieces of shrapnel lodged in his hip, arm and neck before assisting fellow soldiers pinned in a Humvee and recovering the bodies of dead soldiers. The entire ordeal lasted an exhausting 12 hours.
"It was such an intense and long firefight. It's hard to sum up in two minutes. Normally, when I tell the full story it takes me about an hour-and-a-half," Romesha told NHL.com. "There were so many great heroes that day and acts of bravery and selfless service. It's hard to really give those guys justice in just a quick sound bite."
When Romesha returned stateside, he retired from the military to spend more time raising his young family. Naturally, he found a job in the heart of hockey country in Minot, N.D. When it came time to transition into civilian life, his love for hockey proved vital.
"You don't have someone over your shoulder telling you to be here at this time," Romesha said. "When I came to North Dakota, knowing it was one of the states for hockey, I purchased a set of skates and I wanted to learn to skate without falling down. My 11-year-old daughter skates circles around me. We already got our youngest boy a set of skates."
"You can see the direct correlation for teamwork. You have to hold down your sector, your zone, your assignment. Just like hockey."
-- Clinton Romesha on parallels between a hockey team and his platoon
Hockey didn't just provide a fun activity for Romesha's family. When they can, Romesha and his wife, Tamara, enjoy date nights going to see the local team, the Minot Minotauros of the North American Hockey League. Hockey even helped Romesha integrate among his neighbors, none of whom had any idea they were in the presence of a retired war hero.
That changed earlier this year, when it was announced that Romesha would be awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of his brave acts in Afghanistan.
Romesha shied away from the national media attention that came with the honor, but he was thrilled to attend his first NHL game as a guest of the New York Rangers, who invited him into the locker room. It was there Romesha and his wife met Rangers coach John Tortorella, whose son Dominick is stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.
If the attention surrounding Romesha's honor yielded any other benefits, it was the short reunion with his platoon, including the three Minnesota boys who introduced him to the game he now loves.
"All three of these guys are such heroes and showed such bravery. Not just that day, but to sit a Northern California knucklehead like me down and tune me into a great sport like hockey. I can't put into words how much those guys mean to me," Romesha said. "They were at the ceremony at the White House and the Pentagon. We're going to try to link up and go see a Wild game. We'll have to put a date on the calendar and get everyone together and go have a few beers and beat on the glass."