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Sled hockey program making an impact for veterans in central Ohio

Disabled veterans are able to get on the ice and build relationships with the Ohio Warriors

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Brian Rosen likes to say that when he started the Ohio Warriors, he believed that if he could help just one person, the sled hockey program for disabled veterans would be worth it. 

The program has done a lot more than that since its inception in 2014, but as an example of the impact it's had, take Ryan Lenser. 

An eight-year veteran of the Marine Corps who left the service in 2012, Lenser was struggling with his transition from military to civilian life when his wife, Abigail, suggested he attend one of the original sled hockey clinics Rosen put together in Columbus. 

Originally a native of Wisconsin who grew up playing pond hockey with friends and shooting pucks at garage doors, Lenser had a background in the sport and became a Blue Jackets fan upon moving to central Ohio, and Abigail saw sled hockey as a potential avenue for her husband to gain back some of the things he'd been missing in life.  

"She knew I was into hockey and she was like, 'Why don't you go try this?' because things weren't great," Lenser said. "It might have been more than an ultimatum than anything. I went and tried it, got on the ice, fell over for probably an hour, trying to get going, trying to get moving.  

"I got home and Abigail asked me, 'How did you do?' I was like, 'Terribly. I fell over quite a bit. I'm going to be very sore from pushing myself back up.' And she said, 'But how did you like it?' And I said, 'I loved it.' And I've been with the program ever since." 

In the intervening seven years, Lenser has had the chance to skate with the USA Warriors national program, chat with Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella about life, and play in front of thousands during intermissions at Nationwide Arena. 

But on a more day-to-day basis, he's also become the captain of the Ohio Warriors as the program has continued to help disabled veterans acclimate to civilian life, stay active and create relationships with fellow like-minded servicemen and women.  

It's certainly a weekly dose of fun and gets the competitive juices flowing, but it also can be a matter of much more importance for disabled veterans. It's hard enough for many leaving the strict chain of command and focused efforts of the military to return to civilian life, and it's even harder with a disability or post-traumatic stress disorder, a battle many veterans fight. 

Rosen, who continues as general manager of the team, said even he's been taken aback by how much sled hockey can have a tremendous positive impact on their lives. 

"It's interesting when you're sitting having a beer with a guy and they tell you, at the beginning, they literally went week to week -- 'I just need to stay alive until next practice,'" Rosen said. "I'm not saying that to be dramatic. It took me by surprise.  

"I didn't think it would have that kind of impact, at least for some. For other guys, it's a chance to give guys a lot of crap, but for some it's a pretty deep and significant change for them (to return to civilian life), and that lets me know we did the right things for the right reasons." 

Prior to starting the organization, Rosen had worked with the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a five-day event held each year in Colorado that provides sports training and competition for disabled veterans across the country, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Disabled American Veterans nonprofit group.  

Thus he knew the impact sports could have on veterans going through a tough time, and he was inspired to bring an affiliate of the USA Warriors program to Ohio after meeting Shane Parsons, a Fostoria native and double amputee who was returning to his home state after picking up sled hockey while at the winter sports clinic. 

Still, Rosen likely couldn't have known for sure just how many people the Ohio Warriors would go on to help, starting with that initial clinic in January 2014 that featured plenty of media attention and an appearance from CBJ ambassador, broadcaster and former player Jody Shelley. A few weeks later, Rosen held another clinic to see if the interest remained, and when it did, the program was off and running. 

There have been on-ice successes -- a runner-up finish at the 2016 USA Hockey Disabled Festival, for example, and a division championship in their league last spring before the coronavirus pandemic largely shut down sled hockey leagues and tournaments across the country. (Normally, the Ohio Warriors would take to the ice at Nationwide during an intermission during tonight's CBJ Military Appreciation Night, but they are unable to do so this year because of league virus protocols.) 

While the ice time has been cut back, in part because the Ohio Fairgrounds Coliseum ice on which the team usually practices was unavailable, the Ohio Warriors have been able to get back out this winter and spring with weekly practice sessions at the OhioHealth Chiller rinks. Also on the horizon is a return to league play, pandemic willing, come September.  

With that comes the camaraderie that is so familiar to the veterans from their military days. 

"That's actually a really big part of it," Lenser said. "When you're in the military, you're around brothers and sisters every day. All of our training, morning, noon and night, it's constant, especially on deployments. When you leave the military whether you retire or just get out at the end of contract, that's over. We all go back to our respective states, cities, etc., and all of a sudden, there you are. You got used to a completely different dynamic than what you're looking at now. 

"So that's a big part of it. The locker room is huge. I love hockey, but being in the locker room and just chirping everybody, that's fun. We did the same thing in the military. If somebody screws up, you get after them a little bit. Some of that is picked up in the locker room, and it's pretty great. It's something always to look forward to. Like on Wednesday, it's time to go on the ice and be knuckleheads." 

The group caters to all manners of veterans -- men and women, young and old, those who were injured in overseas combat or those who suffered training incidents. While the team has a consistent roster of 18 to 24 players, Rosen continues outreach to other disabled veterans groups to see if anyone would be interested in sled hockey, and he encourages his players to try other sports and activities to stay engaged as well.  

Rosen's goal to help at least one veteran get through tough times has succeeded plenty of times over, and Lenser hopes to see more and more of his fellow disabled veterans follow the same path. 

"I want somebody to come out and fall over the entire first practice and push themselves up, be super sore and everything, then go home and love it," Lenser said. "I want that to happen for many people.". 

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