The third annual USA Hockey Warrior Classic came to City National Arena for a weekend tournament for ex-military hockey players. The tournament was presented by Terry Fator, a notable performer in Las Vegas who was struck by the story of the Warrior Classic and wanted to have a hand in its success.
"For these people who, at one time, might feel despondent or might feel that they have nothing to offer, suddenly they're able to do something that makes them feel competitive and makes them feel alive again," Fator said. "It's such a positive thing."
Fator dropped the puck and sang the national anthem before one of the tournament's games on Oct. 5 and wore a USA Hockey jersey with his name on the back. Sponsoring the Warrior Classic was something that Fator was excited to do and he was inspired by a family friend to give back to the community through sports and community involvement.
"A good friend of my wife's from her college days has a son who has down syndrome and she began to get involved to help people with disabilities to do sports and other things in the community," Fator said.
The Warrior Classic is an important tournament to USA Hockey as it helps veterans focus on playing collectively as a group. Seven teams came to Vegas to play, and there was a blend of serious competition and a friendly atmosphere among players with shared experiences and a love for the game.
In addition to the Warrior Classic, the United States Sled Hockey team made the trip to Vegas and held four practices at City National Arena. Team USA won the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and helped to not only put disabled hockey on the map in the U.S., but to reveal the sport as an option for people with physical challenges that love the game of hockey.
Having the Olympic Sled Hockey team visit Las Vegas and show what they can do despite their physical challenges is something that will radiate in this hockey-crazed community. When Smith looks at what hockey has done here, he sees growth in every style of the game, including for those with disabilities.
"Eighteen months ago, half the people in this city probably didn't know what a hockey puck was," Smith said. "Now, not only do they know what a hockey puck is, they know every player in the NHL, they know all of the rules, and it's fantastic."
Teams came from all over the country to participate in the Warrior Classic, and they put on a show for the fans at City National Arena. The championship rounds saw the Buffalo Sabres Warriors top the Dallas Warriors Upper to win the Division A title while the Chicago Blackhawk Warriors defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins Warriors to claim the Division B crown. Winning banners at the tournament is great for whoever comes out on top, but Smith knows that every team is a winner for getting to take part in such a unique cause.
"Having the Warriors here is special because it gives our injured veterans an opportunity to be still with a unit," Smith said.
When the tournament began, Fator hosted all of the athletes at The Mirage where he performs every week to show his appreciation for their service and to celebrate the beginning of the tournament. He recalled a man telling him that, after serving in Iraq and struggling to adapt when he returned to the United States, that the Warrior hockey program saved his life.
"To be able to have a sense of purpose in your life is one of the most important things that we can do," Fator said. "An organization like this, that's exactly what it does. It gives people a purpose who may feel that they don't have a purpose. Everyone has a purpose, and everyone is important."
The weekend as a whole celebrated what hockey is truly about: people from different backgrounds coming together to put aside anything else that might be going on away from the ice and play a game that's always been a source of togetherness for people who play it. The Warrior Classic will return to Las Vegas next year and, based on this year's success, it will continue to grow and support the brave people who have served our country.
"It's so important for their recovery to get back into society to be still part of a team," Smith said. "The sport of ice hockey, the greatest sport that's ever been invented, has allowed that to happen."