|Forward David Ullstrom and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers wore combat gear for their team-building day with the U.S. Marine Corps
Coaches and players across sports make references to war when describing what happens on the field of play (or ice, in the Sound Tigers case).
Terms such as, “It was a war out there,” or “We won the battle in the trenches,” are often used to illustrate the competitive nature between two opposing teams.
On Sunday, Oct. 2, the Sound Tigers had the privilege of spending a day with some of the men and women who actually put their lives on the line to defend our country. The team traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey to take part in team building exercises under the tutelage of Marines from Marine Aircraft Group 49.
“It was a very cool day out here,” Sound Tigers forward Brock Nelson said. “We got a little briefing when we got off the bus, and there was a little bit of shock. It was pretty crazy to see some of the stuff they go through to protect us and keep us free.”
The Sound Tigers already had a natural tie to the U.S. Marines - assistant coach Doug Holewa served four years as an Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps, completing a combat tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008.
The Marines and Sound Tigers staff separated the players into three groups, then selected a player to lead each group: defensemen Travis Hamonic and Ty Wishart and forward Colin McDonald. The group leaders were tasked with preparing heavy ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment) packs, which all group members had to carry for a 1.5 mile hike.
“To be honest, I wasn’t actually sure what to do myself and needed a little help from one of the Marines,” McDonald said. “I was honored that Pelly (Head Coach Scott Pellerin) selected me to be one of the leaders even though I’ve known these guys only a few days. To be put in that position made me feel a little bit more comfortable.”
The players hiked to a Confidence and Leadership Reaction Course, where the groups needed to use communication and problem-solving skills to complete various tasks put before them. Before arriving, however, they encountered a few preconceived bumps in the road.
“We injected a little confusion during their hike,” Staff Sgt. Lorris Wilson said. “With any task you have, the confusion allows people’s minds to go haywire. It gets them thinking on their feet just like a real-life scenario.”
These moments of confusion included mock situations where players would get “injured”, forcing the team to find a way to help their teammates while still moving towards their destination.
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“We were pretty fortunate that (Sean) Backman, our smallest guy, was the one ‘shot in the leg’”, Nelson said. “(Ty) Wishart carried him on his shoulders part of the way, then Watty (Matt Watkins) carried him the rest of the way. It doesn’t put into perspective what these guys go through in real life, but it was still tough.”
“I was just lucky I wasn’t in Blair Riley’s group because it was a lot easier carrying 175 (pounds) of Backman than 225 of him,” Wishart joked.
We made sure to thank them for allowing us to do what we love, and that's play hockey - Colin McDonald
After the team completed the hike, the separate groups moved to different tasks on the Confidence and Leadership Reaction Course. Examples of tasks included maneuvering the group over an eight-foot wall without touching certain parts of the wall, or moving the group across a series of platforms using planks of wood.
“Some of those were really tricky - one of them we got stumped on at the end,” Nelson said. “We had to climb over areas that were off limits onto platforms, while carrying wood or moving a wheelbarrow across. It was definitely interesting.”
The tasks ranged in difficulty, although the Sound Tigers were able to complete the majority of them. Staff Sgt. Wilson explained that the purpose of the exercises was not necessarily to finish first, but to work towards a solution together.
“It’s not all about completing the task,” Staff Sgt. Wilson said. “There’s no ‘I’ in team. You’re only a strong as your weakest link. That’s what we’re trying to build - camaraderie, togetherness and closeness.”
“It’s about communication,” Pellerin said. “In any type of organization, team, office, family – you need that to be successful. I think for us, this is a great start for our team. Our guys worked together and our leaders led, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Following the completion of tasks on the Confidence and Leadership Reaction Course, the team trekked back to home base and had the opportunity to talk with the Marines about their real-life experiences.
"I was talking with the leader of our group on the way back, and it's pretty amazing what these guys go through," McDonald said. "I don't think we take it for granted necessarily, but to see what these guys do on a daily basis was amazing. We made sure to thank them for allowing us to do what we love, and that's play hockey."