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Blackhawks strive to make veterans' day every game

by Katie Tang / Chicago Blackhawks

Ask any Blackhawks fan and he or she will tell you the anthem at every home game is one of the most spectacular moments of the night. With the arena glowing red, white and blue and Jim Cornelison’s voice ringing proudly, fans can’t help but stand up and cheer, not just for their team, but for their country. It’s a tradition that sends shivers up your spine and has made the United Center one of the best gameday atmospheres around the National Hockey League.

Little do fans know that the men and women that join Cornelison on the ice feel so much pride for their country that some are even driven to tears. While these guests of honor are Blackhawks fans, they are also members of the U.S. Armed Forces. The United Service Organization of Illinois, an organization dedicated to supporting more than 250,000 active-duty and veteran servicemen and their families residing in the state, have coordinated these anthem appearances since the team’s Stanley Cup season.

The USO has been serving America’s troops for 70 years, but it was during the past two that the organization’s Illinois branch became more well-known with Blackhawks fans. At every home game, two military servicemen – one active duty soldier and one veteran – are selected to appear on the ice with Cornelison for the anthem and are honored throughout the game.

“It's amazing,” said Jeannie Lehner, the USO’s appearance coordinator. “Imagine being in Afghanistan, coming home and being featured. It gives them a sense of hope and excites them for what they're doing.”

In her two years with the USO, Lehner has received countless phone calls from veterans and active-duty soldiers, each with a harrowing tale of military life, looking for a brief respite from their memories of war. The anthem appearances serve as one of the many opportunities the USO provides servicemen as a way of honoring them and the time they’ve served for their country.

Imagine being in Afghanistan, coming home and being featured [during the Anthem]. It gives them a sense of hope and excites them for what they're doing. - Jeannie Lehner, USO Appearance Coordinator

“I get calls from veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, who were not given praise after coming home from the war,” said Lehner. “They cry and are so thankful to get the recognition they deserve. They've never been so appreciated.”

Additionally, the Chicago Blackhawks and the USO of Illinois have partnered on a number of other initiatives, all with the hope of supporting America’s troops, both at the United Center and in the city of Chicago.

Executive Vice President Jay Blunk and Senior Director of Market Development and Community Affairs Pete Hassen both serve on the USO of Illinois’ Board of Directors, ensuring that the Blackhawks maintain their support at other USO events, from fundraisers to volunteer appreciation days to the organization’s annual gala. In fact, after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the trophy was on display at the event the following fall.

“They've been amazing,” said Lehner. “They’ve coordinated gifts for our volunteers and donated items for our annual gala. We’re getting a lot more exposure through the Hawks.”

“We want to push the partnership in the building but also outside the United Center, to support the military and their families,” said Hassen. “We see our contributions to the USO and its programs as an extension of the team’s brand outside the United Center.”

At the United Center, season ticketholders are encouraged to participate in a ticket donation program where tickets they do not use will be given to servicemen and their families. Fans can also get involved with the Salute to the Military Sweepstakes, a contest sponsored by Boeing where fans can nominate a member of the military for a chance to win tickets to this year’s Veterans Day game.

“We have a patriotic, hardworking fan base,” Hassen said. “This is a way for them to support and show appreciation for military members and their families.”

The sweepstakes isn’t the only way Boeing has contributed to the Blackhawks’ support of the USO of Illinois. Boeing, a team sponsor and a longtime supporter of the USO, played a large role in forming the bond between the Chicago Blackhawks and the USO of Illinois. When the two organizations first began planning a partnership, Boeing jumped on board with moral and financial support.

2011 USO Jersey Auction

The Chicago Blackhawks will wear camouflage jerseys for the only time this season during warm-ups at the Blackhawks vs. Flames game on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Each player and Blackhawks Ambassador will autograph his own authentic camouflage jersey and auctioned. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the USO of Illinois.


“It is our hope that our sponsorship provides an avenue for Hawks fans and players to thank veterans and active duty personnel,” said Jim Newcomb, Boeing’s director of global brand management and advertising. “We believe that just a few minutes of sincere and enthusiastic recognition make a real difference to the honorees, their fellow servicemen and women, and their families—especially the way that Hawks fans cheer, clap and scream for the personnel being honored at each and every home game.”

Boeing plays another key role in the relationship every year on Veterans Day. For the past two years, the Chicago Blackhawks have worn one-of-a-kind camouflage jerseys during pregame, which are later autographed and put up for an online auction Boeing sponsors. After two years, this event alone has raised nearly $100,000 for the USO of Illinois.

While these events and fundraisers provide financial and moral support, volunteers at the USO of Illinois most appreciate the awareness the partnership has raised in the city of Chicago and look forward to the possibilities to come.

“It’s important we don't forget that behind every uniform there's a person,” said Beth Polito, the USO of Illinois’ media, marketing and public relations director. “Partnering with the Chicago Blackhawks is meaningful for us because it’s a great organization, and they understand our mission and really understand how they can support us in what we do.”

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