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Bruins Make Historic USO Visit to Fort Bragg

by Eric Russo / Boston Bruins

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Colonel Brett Funck has played hockey nearly all his life. He grew up in New York and skated all the way through college at West Point.

Funck is now garrison commander of Fort Bragg, N.C. But his love for the game has not wavered.

As the mayor of the nation’s largest military base by population (52,000 soldiers) and second-largest by size (160,000 acres), Funck still finds time for the game that has given him so much.

That’s why Tuesday was so special.

The Boston Bruins visited Fort Bragg – which is also home to the Airborne and Special Operations Forces – becoming the first National Hockey League team to make a USO-sponsored tour of a military base.

With the guidance of the USO of North Carolina, Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller joined former Bruins blue liner Hal Gill and goalie Andrew Raycroft in touring the facilities and meeting with many of the base’s service men and women.

“We have a good opportunity to be able to connect with some professional athletes and show them what Fort Bragg is like,” Funck said after a lunch with the Bruins, in which he described the day-to-day operations of Fort Bragg.

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“Connecting folks with the military, seeing what a military community is like, as well as understanding what it’s like to be a professional athlete – connecting those two is a great opportunity.

The day began with a visit to the base’s virtual training facilities, where Miller, Gill, and Raycroft got a firsthand – and extremely realistic – taste of what it was like to be out in the field.

The trio was able to conduct missions while controlling virtual Humvees and helicopters in various scenarios in different parts of the world.

It was during the virtual training that the Bruins were able to meet the Barbees, a family of diehard B’s fans that was thrilled to see their hometown team make the trip to North Carolina.

Master Sergeant Pamela Barbee is originally from Medford, Mass., and is stationed at Fort Bragg. Her children, 10-year-old Aiden – whose favorite Bruin is winger David Pastrnak – and 8-year-old Madison, got a chance to mingle with the Bruins and grab some photos and autographs.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Pamela Barbee. “It’s exciting that [the Bruins are] interested, that they care, that they want to be involved and learn how things work.

“We watch them always and track them always. We get home [to Massachusetts] as often as possible. We try to get tickets every time we’re home.

“We stay pretty plugged into the Bruins – no matter where we are.”

The next stop on the tour was a visit to the 11th QM Parachute Packing Platoon. Miller, Gill, and Raycroft met with the riggers, who pack the parachutes used for an assorted array of missions.

On average, each rigger packs 15 parachutes a day for a total of 450-500. The facility is expected to prepare for 10,000 jumps a month.

One of those in charge of the Packing Platoon is LTC Jeremy St. Laurent, a native of Pepperell, Mass., and a 1998 graduate of the University of Vermont. The meeting allowed him to reminisce with fellow UVM grad Kevan Miller (2011).

“When Kevan first started playing with the Bruins, I was excited that another UVM grad was playing professional hockey,” said St. Laurent. “But the fact that he was one in the group [at Fort Bragg] was awesome.

“There’s not a lot of New Englanders down in the South and there’s not a whole lot of UVM grads in the world, so when you hear about it, just that is kind of exciting.”

St. Laurent noted the added buzz around the base after a number of native New Englanders and Boston sports fans came over to take pictures and meet with the Bruins.

“As a New Englander and as a Bruins fan, it’s absolutely fantastic,” said St. Laurent, a former goalie whose favorite Bruin of all-time is netminder Pete Peeters.

“I would have been happy to share this with any hockey team – as a diehard hockey fan – but to have my team down here is great.

“From a soldier’s perspective, the opportunity for the soldiers to display their skill craft is fantastic…They might not necessarily be NHL fans, but the fact that you’ve got nationally known individuals that you’re able to work with is fantastic for them.”

The day ended with a clinic for Cape Fear Youth Hockey at Fort Bragg’s hockey rink, which is one of two rinks located on a United States military base (the other is at Fort Wainwright, Alaska).

Roughly 50 youngsters, along with their coaches, hit the ice, many dawning Bruins gear. Miller, Gill, and Raycroft helped run the drills and passed along advice and pointers.

“I grew up watching those guys, Hal and Raycroft, and now we watch Miller. It’s pretty awesome,” said Fall River, Mass., native Adam Mandeville, a coach with the program, whose children Tavian and Silas – both big Patrice Bergeron fans – took part in the session.

“It’s awesome. I always played hockey – I thought I was giving up hockey when we moved down South and to find out we had a rink right here on post was pretty awesome.”

The program has grown enormously in recent years, expanding from 20 mites two years ago to 60 this season. Altogether, 155 children, ages 4 to 18, take part in the program.

“My children started off on inline [skates], playing on tennis courts and basketball courts,” said Sgt. Maj. Jim Voncanon, who is also the vice president of Cape Fear Youth Hockey.

“Now we’re taking kids from the street on inline courts and putting them in college. We’ve got some junior hockey players…They’ve come from a little country team to being competitive with some of our bigger organizations.”

After the skate, the kids were able to meet with Miller, Gill, and Raycroft for pictures, autographs, and some Bruins goodies.

“I tell you what, when you look out there and see the kids and how excited they are, we’re just so grateful that Boston would allow their players to come down,” said Voncanon.

“We really appreciate it and the kids appreciate it – and the parents and soldiers, particularly the ones that are getting deployed and are on Skype right now seeing their kids out on the ice. That’s what it’s all about.”

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