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Navy sailor surprised as Hero of the Game

by Gordy Stillman / New Jersey Devils
Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Koppinger comes from a family of military service and law enforcement, and seeks to follow the same path after finishing his service in the Navy. On February 16, his wife surprised him with a celebration as the New Jersey Devils' Hero of the Game. Photo by Patrick Dodson

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Koppinger just thought he was attending the New Jersey Devils’ Retro Night when he and his wife arrived at Prudential Center on February 16. Wearing a Patrik Elias Jersey, the West Milford native was prepared to watch his favorite hockey team, but not to be the center of attention during the second period.

When the 23-year-old sailor arrived, he learned his high school sweetheart, Courtney, had nominated him to be the night’s Hero of the Game. “He loves the Devils, so I figured this would a good way to show how much we care about him,” she said when the couple arrived at the arena. “He deserves something special too.”

Koppinger called it overwhelming when he learned he’d be celebrated. “I’m just a small man and there are so many guys I can think of that deserve this before me…it’s humbling,” Koppinger said. “Me and [my wife] sacrificed a lot. We got engaged right before I was deployed.”

Koppinger spent his year of engagement away from Courtney, deployed to Bahrain. Sent to the small Middle-Eastern nation in May 2013, Koppinger worked as part of the security forces fighting piracy and terrorism-related threats. “The lifestyle is tough, but I had a small team of 10-12 guys, and they were like brothers, every single one of them.” Koppinger would get brief two or three-week breaks after each year based in Bahrain and said it was tough each time to return.

“What made it better was the chief I served under. He was amazing and like a father to me.” Koppinger explained that his superior, Jason Sheek, was one of the best leaders he could have asked for. “It was because of him that my team and I had it so good.” By the end of his service, almost everyone on Koppinger’s team had earned an expeditionary warfare specialist pin, which a sailor qualifies for following an extensive proficiency test that includes a four-hour board panel with senior officers.

For Koppinger, that pin stands out among the commendations and medals he received, because of the work he put in to earn it. “It comes down to the ins and outs of your job, and there’s a lot to know,” he said.

From Bahrain, Koppinger was occasionally deployed to European nations including Spain, Italy and Greece, which he called an amazing experience. “Spain is definitely my second-favorite country, America being my first,” he said after running through the other places he’s travelled. “I could live there for a year or two, and I’d have a great time.”

While in the Navy, Koppinger earned his associates degree from the University of Maryland, and is working on a bachelor’s degree at William Patterson University. He received his honorable discharge after returning from Bahrain in December 2015 and hopes to have a career in law enforcement once he completes his education. “I like serving, and I happen to be pretty good at it. I know the field.” Koppinger added that through service he finds a purpose, and enjoys helping people.

Koppinger comes from a family with strong connections to the military and police force. His grandfather served in the Vietnam War and had a law enforcement career afterward, and much of his family had spent time with the police or the military. “I wanted to serve since I was a kid, so that’s what I did,” Koppinger said. He later explained that while his grandfather was in the U.S. Army, Koppinger chose the Navy, hoping to become a part of one of the service’s elite Special Forces teams.

A lifelong Devils fan, Koppinger said it felt amazing to be recognized by his favorite NHL team. Beyond Elias, the former sailor lists Bobby Farnham and Kyle Palmieri as two of his favorite players. Farnham gets Koppinger’s attention for his intensity on the ice, and Palmieri earns a nod for being a local star who works hard. “This year is a fun year to watch.”

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