The U16 team double as counselors for the Thomas Greiss Hockey Camp, which begins promptly at 7:30 a.m. Early mornings don't faze this crew, they're a reality at the country's most populated military base.
Video: Summer Series: Greiss' Hockey Camp
Fort Bragg is somewhere between large base and small city, with shopping centers, two golf courses and even a Starbucks, sandwiched next to barracks, obstacle courses and a fully-equipped airfield. There are uniformed military members at every turn, from shopping at convenience stores, to PT (physical training), to simulating parachute jumps. There are Humvee's stopped at red lights, Jeeps with American flag taillights and even the rink has a military personality, with ads on the boards for night vision goggles.
But this is where Greiss, a German-born goalie, has planted his flag in his mission to give back. He's here for the military families, offering a hockey clinic to the kids of America's servicemen and women, the ones who put their lives on the line to defend the nation.
"They voluntarily chose to defend the country and do things for everyone in the United States and we have to be thankful for that," said Greiss.
THE GREISS EFFECT:
The Cape Fear Warriors - the youth hockey association at Fort Bragg - is a tight, but extraordinarily welcoming group. Stacy Moses, whose husband Colonel Brad Moses - United States Army Special Operations Command Chief of Staff - has seen 66 months of combat, said the Warriors are like a second family when loved ones are deployed.
So, despite the geography and the sweltering North Carolina heat, hockey is important here and Greiss has become part of the hockey community at Fort Bragg.
"My husband has been away quite a few times, so hockey has become our second family. It makes him more comfortable when he's away that these kids have role models to look up to," Moses said. "Three years Thomas has come here, giving back and it means everything to these kids and military families that they have this outlet for their kids. [The kids can] escape reality, not worry about mom and dad being away and they can just be on the ice having fun."
Greiss and his family stay on the base during their week-long camp and when he's not skating, he's immersing himself on the base. Greiss spends an afternoon at the shooting range with two of the hockey parents and camp counsellors. His wife, Brittney, goes skydiving with the Golden Knights - the elite army paratroopers, not the NHL team.
They go to Moses' house for a BBQ with all the counselors from the camp, eating brisket, burgers and hot dogs, while their daughter plays in the backyard with the other kids.
"It takes a special guy to come into the camp every year during their normal family time and give up a week of that family time," said Major Mike Adams, who coaches the U16 team and leads drills at the camp. "Going beyond that, he maintains contact with a lot of our players over the course of the year, whether he's texting them and asking how their games are going or responding to their texts when he has a game. It's a fantastic mentorship and relationship that he has with a lot of the young kids in the association."
Adams knows first-hand what Greiss' dedication looks like. Last summer Adams' youngest son Drake suffered a compression fracture in his back after falling awkwardly into the boards. Greiss texted and called Drake to check-in during his rehab, and that alone meant the world to Mike. Drake made a full recovery and the defenseman was back playing for his high school team in Minnesota that season.
But the story goes deeper than that. Drake dressed as his team's emergency goalie for one game during the season and Mike thought Greiss would get a kick out of seeing Drake out of his element, complete with mismatched/ill-fitting goalie gear. Not long after, a giant package was delivered to Adams' house. Greiss sent Drake a brand-new set of goalie pads, as well as his custom glove and blocker set from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
"He doesn't have to have that kind of commitment, but he absolutely does," Adams said. "Hockey players are a special breed, but he's just a little bit more special."
The camp itself has a positive impact on the kids at Fort Bragg. Of course, there's the on-ice work, the drills, Greiss giving the goalies pro tips, the drylands training and yoga, which all help develop players, but there's more to it. Ask the parents who line the glass and watch from the stands and they'll tell you that hockey is a break from reality for the kids - a reality that includes worrying about parents put in harm's way or having to move from base to base.
"I could put them on the ice and it would wash away," Kristen Ralston, one of the hockey moms helping at the camp, said. "As a parent, that's what you want, you don't want your kid focusing on 'is dad going to get hurt, are they going to be okay, what are the soldiers doing today'… So this was a point for them they could control and it helps with their emotions too."
Ralston has five kids, ages 11, 9, 7, 5 and 3, who she affectionately refers to as 'the herd.' She has also graciously opened her home to more kids from out of town for the camp. She sees the benefits her kids get out of the camp and just the excitement of having an NHLer on the ice with them.
"It lights up their life," Ralston said. "They get excited and for us it's almost like a relief, there's someone that's going to pay attention to the kids and they are going to have a blast."
Ralston spent six years on the base before her kids started playing hockey and now they're all-in as hockey fans. She has four kids on skates and the NHL Center Ice package is constantly on in the house.
Major Mark Ralston, Kristen's husband, has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and while he's home during this year's camp, he'll eventually have to ship out again. When he's overseas, hockey helps keep the family connected and they can watch the same games even on the other side of the world.
"That has bonded our family together because even if my husband is gone, they are still watching the same game," Ralston said. "It's a different time zone and he may have to wake up at 3 a.m. but he's still going to do it to connect with the kids."
Do they turn on the Isles games?
"We do because of Thomas," Ralston said.
GREISS AND THE UNITED HEROES LEAGUE:
This is Greiss' third season spending time at the Fort Bragg hockey camp, but the first time he's lent his name to it. He was originally invited by Eric Boulton, who introduced him to Shane Hudella, President and Founder of United Heroes League, the organization that supplies hockey gear to military families to keep costs down. (UHL also covered most of the costs for the kids at Greiss' camp this year, making it very affordable for the families.)
"We can call UHL for anything," Stacy Moses said. "We have a lot of families who just couldn't afford to play and they step up and take care of it, they outfit the kids from head to toe, they pay for the kids to come to camps. They do a lot for this community and many of them wouldn't be able to play at all without people like Thomas and UHL stepping up."
The camp has grown in each of the past three seasons, with 80 kids attending this year's camp, including kids from South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky. Having Greiss put on the camp has elevated its status.
"There hasn't been a question in the last two summers whether Thomas was going to come down, it was when, which has been phenomenal for us as an association and an organization," Adams said. "It has made the camp that much better."
And for the players and counsellors, it's a - if not the - highlight of the summer.
"It makes me anxious every summer," said Ayden Kopec, a goalie and Islanders fan who has gone from camper to counsellor. Getting out of school, getting to see Thomas Greiss, going to camp and having him give me some pointers for the next season, it gets me really excited for the summer and this week."
6:00 p.m. - Cleland Ice Rink - Counsellors Game
The Cape Fear Warriors U16 play an inter-squad game on Wednesday night. As a treat, Greiss is suiting up in full gear to play in net, his first full-gear game of the summer.
Having a current NHLer in goal provides a healthy advantage for the blue team, but it's a thrill for the counselors.
Greiss - who switches teams during the game - is having fun with it, dropping down for a diving poke check on the first breakaway of the game. Eventually the puck finds the back of the net after a loose rebound is backhanded home and is immediately retrieved and saved - a ritual practiced by all the game's goal scorers.
"That's the pinnacle of his career, is being able to share the ice and compete with an NHL goalie," Adams said, referencing his son, and head counselor, Duncan. "He said before the game if he was able to get one by Thomas he was going to pick it up and save it."
Greiss sticks around after the game taking pictures with the counselors. The Islanders digital team heads into the locker rooms for post-game interviews and there's a lot of smiling, laughing and balls of tape flying around.
Earlier that morning Cleland Rink felt like any other youth hockey rink, but between an NHL goalie, cameras around the glass and post-game interviews, it feels like a glimpse of the pros, even for a night.
That's what Greiss is trying to accomplish here, giving back to a military community because he's thankful for what they do. As it turns out, so are they.