Tuesday's Hero of the Game, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Joseph Czikalla. (Photo: Courtney Gfroerer)
The New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center joined the rest of the country on Veterans Day by celebrating Military Appreciation Night Tuesday as the team hosted the Minnesota Wild.
The highlight of the night took place midway through the first period as the Devils introduced Sergeant First Class Joseph Czikalla as the team’s Hero of the Game. Czikalla received a standing ovation as the Devils PA announcer described his three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Czikalla works in the Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or “Military Bomb Squad,” and returned in April from his third deployment to the Middle East. Czikalla has received two Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat as well as three Bronze Stars, including one for valor. He’s currently based at the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County and is scheduled for spinal surgery on Thursday.
Czikalla is humble about his service. Regarding his recognition in tonight’s game, he said, “I always feel that there’s someone else who deserves it more than me.”
The game was also Czikalla and his daughter’s first NHL game after years as season ticket holders of a minor league team in Iowa. Czikalla and his family are originally from The Hawkeye State, where they attended many junior hockey games. “My daughter is a huge fan…being here at an NHL game is definitely something that will be a good memory for both of us.”
In addition to honoring Czikalla, military personnel in Section 10 held up a giant American flag as the National Anthem was sung by Sergeant Teliah Wilson and the New Jersey National Guard presented colors on the ice. Before and during the game, the Devils hosted a 50/50 raffle bringing in a total of $10,000, with a portion of the money raised going to Defending the Blue Line.
The New Jersey Devils partnership with Defending the Blue Line is the latest partnership between an NHL team and the organization that helps military families cover the cost of hockey gear, fees, camps and other hockey-related activities for military children.
“Hockey is expensive, there’s just no denying it,” said Jason Hutchins, New Jersey regional representative for Defending the Blue Line. Between gear, fees, tournaments, Hutchins said it adds up fast, “and when you’re talking about families that have already sacrificed so much in service to our country it’s not difficult to see why DTBL is driven to help.”
Hutchins’ kids were even on hand helping, having benefitted from Defending the Blue Line. Hutchins served in both the Army and Marine Corps.
“We want to speak to the NJ military and veteran community and let them know that if their child has a passion for hockey we’re here to help.”