CHICAGO -- At first glance, it looked like the Chicago Blackhawks decided to hold an off-day skate at the outdoor rink located inside Soldier Field for this weekend's OfficeMax Hockey City Classic.
A closer look revealed something much different.
The Blackhawks were indeed out there Saturday morning in chilly temperatures, but they were not by themselves. Joining them, also wearing Blackhawks practice jerseys, were members of the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, which trains and supplies injured servicemen and women with hockey equipment and skills to use the sport as a rehabilitation tool.
Whether they used prosthetic legs with skates attached or zipped around in sleds, the Warriors showed the Blackhawks -- who they watched the night before defeat the San Jose Sharks 4-1 at United Center -- that hockey is, indeed, for everybody who wants to play.
"These guys are our heroes," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's an inspiration to see these guys want to come out here and play and do anything they can to have some fun, stay in shape and play something they love. Getting to share it with some pro athletes is special for them, but I think it's more special for us when we get a chance to show some of our appreciation for what they've done for us."
The feeling was mutual.
"This was amazing," retired Army Capt. Mark Little said of the prearranged outdoor skate. "You don't get this kind of experience anywhere else. We just skated with, in my opinion, the best team in the world, and that's just an amazing honor."
The fact Little, 29, and others are back playing the sport they love is amazing in itself.
Little is a double amputee. He lost both legs in 2007 in Iraq when the Humvee he was riding in was rocked by an improvised explosive device (IED). He's from Fairfax, Va., and grew up playing hockey. Initially, Little thought he'd never play again -- but five years later he's the captain of the USA Warriors, who will play on the outdoor rink on Saturday night.
"It was one week after [the] injury when I met my physical therapist and she said, 'It's important we set goals right off the bat; what do you want to do?'" Little said. "I said, 'Well, I've played hockey all my life. I'd love to play hockey again, but I know that's not going to happen.' She said, 'You know what? Let's talk tomorrow.'"
The next day, the physical therapist had a surprise visitor for him.
"She brought in a double amputee and he brought in his pair of rollerblade prosthetics, the first pair ever that had just been made just the week before," Little said, leaning on his stick after Saturday's skate. "He showed them to me and said, 'Dude, you can do whatever you want.' And that was it -- 'Fine, I'm playing.'"
Little started on rollerblades but switched to hockey skates after joining the Warriors program about a year later. He has played ever since and his can-do attitude cannot be missed. He said the secret to having such an upbeat outlook on life after his injury is simple.
"It's who you are before injury that leads into afterwards," Little said. "The injury is an event in time. That's it. But who you are before, that's who you are after. Now I just come in three pieces instead of one."
Saturday was Little's second experience with the Blackhawks, who also skated with the Warriors during the 2010-11 season on their trip to visit the White House as Stanley Cup champions.
"We went to meet with them at Walter Reed [Medical Center] and we skated with them after practice the next day, and here we are again, the same bunch of guys," captain Jonathan Toews said. "I think the honor is still the same to get to talk to them and understand the things they're going through."
The experiences meeting and skating with the Warriors were powerful for the Blackhawks, who got an up-close and inspirational look at how much some have given to serve their country.
"We look up at them," Toews said. "We appreciate everything they've done for us, and to us, they're the real heroes."
Teammate Patrick Sharp agreed.
"When things aren't going so well at the rink or in your personal life, just to take a look at what some of these guys have sacrificed and what they're going through," Sharp said. "It puts things in perspective."
It also gave the Warriors more great memories of their own.
"It was cool to be on the ice with them," Army Lance Cpl. Josh Misiewicz said. "They're so fast. You think they're fast when you're watching up in the stands, but on the ice level it's unbelievable. I'm definitely taking some memories from this, I'm sure."
Misiewicz, who's from the Chicago area and grew up playing hockey as a Blackhawks fan, lost his legs in combat in 2011, when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. Like Little, he thought at first that he'd never be able to get back on the ice.
After learning about the Warriors program, Misiewicz is playing sled hockey and enjoying every second.
"It's been good," he said. "It's good therapy, good everything. I played hockey my whole life and played some college and then joined the military. I got injured and one of the first things I thought was, 'I'll never play hockey again,' so it's an unbelievable thing to play sled hockey and finally we put together a team out there, so it's a lot of fun for our guys."
Part of the fun on Saturday included a staged "captains fight" between Little and Toews -- likely because of the actual scrap Toews got into Friday night against Sharks captain Joe Thornton.
"I'll never forget pulling Toews' jersey over his head," Little said, laughing. "He let me -- but it was pretty awesome."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent