On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Freeport, former Islanders Eric Cairns, Steve Webb and Eric Boulton were casting lines off a charter fishing boat. Cairns, Webb and Boulton were all pretty tough customers in the NHL but chucking knucks on the ice can't compare to the fights Army Master Sergeant Justin Broadwater has seen in Iraq and Kuwait.
So, Saturday was a thank you of sorts, as the Islanders and United Heroes League arranged to take Broadwater, his 11-year-old daughter Emily and 11 other military families out for a day of fishing in Baldwin Bay. After all, these days are too few and far between for military families, something the UHL - and the Islanders - want to fix.
"We're just trying to get the kids out for a fun day," Boulton said. "Part of the reason we started this United Heroes League is because some of these parents get deployed for a year or so at a time. It's very hard on the families and it's very hard on the kids. If we can make their life a little easier by paying for a hockey camp, soccer or baseball, [sports] aren't cheap. So, if we can just help take away some of that burden is rewarding."
For the past 10 years, the UHL has dedicated its efforts on minimizing the financial burden of equipment costs for military families. The foundation, originally named Defending the Blue Line, was founded by Shane Hudella who grew up playing hockey. Throughout the years, the foundation has expanded outside of solely servicing the hockey community and rebranded itself to the United Heroes League to encompass its support for sports like baseball, football, soccer, golf and tennis as well.
"It started out as helping just hockey," UHL Outdoors Director Steve Payne said. "The idea was let's get the equipment initially so we can give the equipment to the parents and get the kids involved and get them started. From there, it's progressed to other sports as we've received more donations and partnered with other [professional] athletes. We give grants out now. We have a number of players that do camps in the summertime and they set aside a number of spots for [military kids] to come for free. We also have connections with pretty much NHL team in the league and they usually give us a block of tickets so we can send 20 or 30 families to game and a lot of times have the chance to meet some players after the game."
The UHL has over 100 professional athlete ambassadors, an overwhelming amount of which are NHLers, including current Islanders; Cal Clutterbuck, Thomas Greiss, Matt Martin and Brock Nelson. To-date, the UHL has raised $10 million worth of free sports equipment, game tickets, cash grants, sports camps and special experiences to military families across the US & Canada. The Islanders are proud to be a part of this legacy - and Greiss has run a hockey camp for military families at Fort Bragg for the past three years.
"It's been about eight years for me working for the United Heroes League," Boulton said. "I had mutual friends with [founder Hudella]. I was around back when it started and was one of the guys first involved in the camp down in North Carolina. Greiss has now taken over…We're just trying to give back to the service members and do what we can."
Video: Summer Series: Greiss' Hockey Camp
The UHL puts on annual events throughout the United States and Canada ranging from fundraisers, partnered Military Appreciation Nights, concerts and athletic clinics. This year, the UHL launched its first-ever fishing event campaign which featured trips to Dallas, Washington D.C., Calgary, Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, San Jose and Saturday's trip out on Long Island.
"I've always believed that sports are a great foundation for kids to learn behavior and character," Payne said. "They learn a lot. They learn how to be an individual. They learn to be a teammate. They learn to lose. They learn to win. They learn to be competitive. They learn ethics and morals. There's just all kinds of things they can learn and garner from being in athletics."
Outside of raising money for sporting equipment, the UHL's fishing trips provide a unique and valuable memory for military families and their children to bond over a fun-packed day on the water. For Justin and Emily Broadwater, these moments together are sparse. Broadwater, who grew up on a rural farm outside of Pittsburgh, was recruited into the army straight out of high school and has been enlisted ever since. While he is now approaching retirement, Broadwater has sacrificed precious time with Emily over the years as a result of frequent relocations that ranged from Puerto Rico to New York City and even his two tours spent in Iraq in 2005-06 and Kuwait in 2010-11.
"I've had a blessed career to do stuff like this and events like this," Broadwater said. "Even if it's my 100th event it's special because it's that specific event that is different than in the past. I've never been one-on-one fishing with my daughter. We've been absent in each other's lives so often with so many moves and deployments, it's such a hectic life. Just getting to spend three or four hours of quality time. Events like this; these are the memories that will last forever."
The UHL's efforts aim to help support the selfless endeavors from military members and provide their families some stability and peace of mind when enrolling their children in something as beneficial as athletics. Saturday's fishing trip is not only a culmination of those efforts but provides the opportunity for the professional ambassadors to get involved and create a special and sincere memory for the military families.
As Saturday's afternoon of fishing wrapped up and the charter made its way back to the dock, it was safe to say the Long Island fishing event was a success - even for someone like Payne, who formerly played in the NHL for the Minnesota North Stars and lost to the Islanders back in the 1981 Stanley Cup Final.
"It's nice to team up with the Islanders for once instead of going against them," Payne said. "But to be honest, this is probably one of the best jobs I've ever had other than playing hockey in the NHL. What better thing to do than to give a military parent and their kid(s) a day to come out, catch a fish, rub shoulders with professional athletes, talk sports, hear inside stories and make a memory of a lifetime?"