Early in a deployment in Afghanistan, Special Forces Sgt. Mike was on a combat patrol with his team. In an unsuspecting instant, an IED blast ejected him from his vehicle, and he sustained extensive head trauma.
Mike would make a full recovery and return to full duty with his team within two months time.
Months later, Mike, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, joined the Carolina Hurricanes at Cleland Ice Rink in Fort Bragg for practice.
“Mike has been a hockey player since he was a kid, just like mine,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Moses, commander of the 3rd Special Forces unit. “As a special forces guy, he can’t play hockey full-time anymore, and certainly with some of his injuries, he doesn’t play to the extent he did, but this is probably a dream come true for him.”
Smiling wide and with shortened breath, Mike put the unique experience into words as best he could after the 45-minute skate.
“A lot of these guys I’ve seen on TV over the years. The biggest one was Rod Brind’Amour. That was kind of cool,” he said. “Just the experience of being able to see people you idolize and everything, that was pretty cool.”
A native of Michigan, Mike, who started playing hockey at a later age and said he wasn’t necessarily good enough to play in college, joined the military in 2000. He has been stationed in North Carolina for around seven years and has skated the ice at Cleland Ice Rink before – but never side-by-side with an NHL team.
“Coach was running me hard,” he said. “It was fast. Everything was quick. It will probably take me a day or two to process it.”
Outfitted in a gray practice sweater and his own equipment, Mike joined Jeff Skinner and Riley Nash on a forward line.
“We said he’d pick up the pace for those two and get them moving quicker,” head coach Kirk Muller joked. “To throw him out there was great. It was a nice reward for him, and he was excited.”
“I’m sure he had fun. It was cool to be a part of that,” Skinner said. “We had a good time with him on the ice. It’s fun to brighten someone’s day like that. Hopefully he will be talking about that for awhile.”
Not only can Mike say he practiced with a professional hockey team, but he also recorded a goal (which prompted a good bit of stick-banging and hollering) and an assist – something he said he’ll be sure to tell his friends.
“I told Ward he shouldn’t have let me get one in, but he said it was good,” Mike said. “I set up Skinner, too. So that was cool.”
After a Canada vs. world shootout capped the practice drills, Mike led the Canes in a team stretch at center ice. His skills that got the best workout? Cardio and stickhandling, he said.
“The Staals pass pretty fast, both of them,” he said. “A few times I bobbled a pass, but live and learn.”
Aside from the unofficial stat sheet and the skill-honing, Mike said one thing he’ll take away from the experience is the connection made with the team.
“Just getting to know the guys on a personal level and being able to compare experiences as far as a hard-working community and pride in what you do,” he said.
After lunch at the rink, Mike would then give the Canes a glimpse of his side of life, taking them to the shooting range.
“This is a perfect day when we’ve had two good practices, and we have two more before we start up in Buffalo. This kind of breaks it up, and gets the guys to have a little fun and enjoy each other,” Muller said. “There’s nothing like bonding together, especially now before we’re up for a real tough schedule from here to the end.”
The excursion, in part organized with the help of sports agent and former Special Forces member Paul Theofanous, was sponsored by the Special Forces Charitable Trust, who paid for the ice time, served lunch and hosted the team.
Prior to the Canes practice, Defending the Blue Line (DTBL), which provides equipment and financial support to hockey-playing kids of military families, organized a youth hockey clinic. A majority of the participants were kids of military families. Canes goaltending coach Greg Stefan spent time with the handful of goaltenders in attendance while Patrick Dwyer and Nathan Gerbe assisted in other areas on the ice.
“A lot of our kids are fans of the Hurricanes,” said Bill Wert, coaching director for the Cape Fear Youth Hockey Association (CFYHA). “It means an awful lot from a coach and player standpoint to increase our numbers and spread the great sport of hockey. This effort there by the Carolina Hurricanes helps tremendously.”
Last June, the Hurricanes partnered with DTBL and CFYHA to preserve Cleland Ice Rink, which was targeted for a temporary shutdown due to installation resource constraints.
“Talking to the guys and learning how this rink means a lot to them when they’re overseas, they come home and they’re just trying to be a regular dad and get their kids out to play the wonderful sport of hockey,” said Muller, whose hometown of Kingston, Ont., is host to the Royal Military College of Canada. “This rink is so important for them. To come down and promote our game and have fun with them and interact is a win-win for everybody.”
While at Cleland Ice Rink last summer speaking at a youth hockey clinic, Eric Staal phoned LTC Moses, who was stationed in Afghanistan with the 3rd Special Forces unit. Today, Moses got to thank Staal personally.
“I’ve deployed seven times to Afghanistan for a total of 57 months. Hockey is something for my kids to do when I’m gone,” Moses said. “This gives them a connection not only to the community but a second family, and that’s important to me.
“I have two boys that play hockey. Picture yourself being a kid. This is what you want to do when you grow up. Now, how many of them will actually be NHL players? I don’t know. But they want to be,” he continued. “These are some of their heroes. It’s a special event.”
From developing the hockey players of tomorrow to skating with a war hero to bonding as a team in the presence of the similarly tightly-knit military community to giving back to a community that gives so much to its country, the Saturday the Canes spent at Ft. Bragg was much more than just another practice day.
“It’s a fun day. We can use it as a team-builder,” Skinner said. “At the same time, we get to come out, and these people who do a lot and sacrifice a lot get to see us. It’s cool to be a part of this day.”
“It’s such an honor to be down here,” Muller said. “These are special people, and we were fortunate to be allowed to come in here and be a part of it.”