What started as a small program in Fort Benning, Ga., to provide soldiers stationed at the local military base with an outlet through hockey has suddenly seen incredible growth in a few months. And it's definitely earned the attention of people all over the hockey world.
At first, the Hockey Saves program consisted of a few dozen military servicemen enjoying some time on the ice. But in just a few months, it has ballooned to include roughly 200 players in Fort Benning, with plans to stage a tournament with other servicemen in the Pittsburgh area. That consistent expansion is now giving more and more members of the military a vital outlet.
"We're not a hockey program. We're an organization that is helping soldiers," said Jacqueline Andrews, the founder of Hockey Saves. "Our tool of choice is hockey. We're using hockey to help these guys."
Because of all the new players joining the organization and looking to get on the ice, the needs of Hockey Saves have also grown considerably. That puts greater demand on Andrews to help provide all elements of the program, like equipment and ice time. Fortunately for her, the hockey world has taken notice.
Thanks in large part to Hockey Saves' presence in social media and online, the group drew interest from a number of people around the hockey world. Ryan Jones of the Edmonton Oilers was one of the first pro players to reach out, sending down a number of hockey sticks as well as some autographed trading cards, a generous gesture that the soldiers really appreciated.
"Even guys who are not Oilers fans were awestruck," Andrews said.
That was just the beginning. Since officially registering as a non-profit organization, more and more hockey people have begun reaching out to Hockey Saves. ESPN's John Buccigross helped organize a recent tournament in Atlanta and the University of Notre Dame's hockey team sent boxes full of hockey tape. One of the team's goaltenders, Joe Rogers, was so taken by Hockey Saves that he joined the group's board.
This upcoming season, both the University of Denver and University of Georgia will be wearing the Hockey Saves decals on their helmets while Notre Dame is considering putting the logo on their jerseys. But the gesture that may have earned the most attention may have been when the NHL designed and donated a series of brand new hockey jerseys to the organization and its players.
"The NHL made our jerseys for us. We even got emails from Afghanistan, the boys asked us to please save jerseys for them," Andrews said. "Seeing the jerseys that the NHL made was a real pinch-me moment, especially for the guys. I think it's one of those things that can never be taken away from them."
Hockey Saves also accepts donations online and Andrews is hoping to slowly introduce a hockey-centric jobs program for soldiers transitioning back into civilian life. But in the meantime, she's just trying to handle the impressive growth the organization has experienced in such a short period of time.
The group has received plenty of attention and generous contributions over the past few months, but it has also served to inspire civilians and demonstrate the power of a sport that so many people love.
"You have other people [contacting us] who are hockey fans in general. Some people who were affected by something traumatic in their lives, they even share stories with us about how hockey helped them," Andrews said. "They understand the power of the game in helping soldiers."