Growing up in a military household, Winnipeg Jets forward Matt Hendricks learned the value of loyalty, toughness, teamwork and discipline more strictly than most.
Matt's father, Cpl. Douglas J. Hendricks, served in the United States Marine Corps in the 1970's and was every bit the firm, dominant symbol you'd expect of a serviceman.
"I'm glad I was raised that way," Hendricks said. "I truly believe it helped propel my hockey career. When it comes to training, nutrition, working together as a team to accomplish a common goal… It all comes down to discipline."
"It taught me a lot, and I'm just trying to use that now to help give back."
For Hendricks, now an 11-year veteran, charitable endeavours have always been a big part of his life's work. However, it was early in his pro career when one in particular jumped out, giving him and his wife, Kim, the opportunity to give back to the sport they love and help military families in need, all in one fell swoop.
The United Heroes League - formerly 'Defending the Blue Line' - is a non-profit initiative, founded by former Minnesota Army National Guard solider Shane Hudella, that helps military families overcome the high cost of organized sports, and ensures the children of active duty members and veterans are given every opportunity to participate.
The Hendricks family, who's based in Minnesota, reached out and wanted to get involved.
Video: WPG@ARI: Hendricks buries wrister on long rebound
"It's amazing how big it's become," Hendricks said. "It started back in 2009, and just last year, we changed the name, branching out to a bunch of other sports, not just hockey. We've literally spread across the National Hockey League (and have) representatives on just about every team in the league. … Overall, it's done very well, and we're pleased with that, but at the end of the day, the bigger we get, the more kids and military families we reach, so we're very proud."
To date, the program has donated more than $3 million in equipment, game tickets, cash grants and camp fees to military families across the U.S. and Canada, with the help of more than 75 'pro ambassadors,' including Hendricks' new teammate and fellow Minnesotan Dustin Byfuglien, former Jet Mark Stuart and the now-retired 1.0 alumnus Phil Housley.
"Everyone wins," Hendricks said. "The community gives us, as players, just so, so much. They give us a platform to play hockey, they cheer for us win or lose, and we're doing everything we can to give back.
"It's all about the kids. If there's anything we can do to help make things easier on those families and provide opportunities those children wouldn't otherwise get, we make it happen."
Hendricks officially joined the program back in December of 2012 when he was invited to attend the annual United Service Organizations' Holiday Tour - a 75-year-old event that presents live entertainment to servicemen and women deployed overseas. The weeklong trip made stops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, and the Bagram and Kandahar airfields in Afghanistan, where he met and addressed thousands of American troops, and gained a whole new appreciation for the bravery and hardships the men and women of our beloved armed forces face on a daily basis.
Out of that, 'Hendy's Heroes' came to life in his Washington, D.C. workplace. Five years later, and after continuing those efforts in Nashville and Edmonton, the program will live on right here in the home of the Royal Canadian Air Force, in his very first year with the Jets.
"We're going to bring two military members to a few games this year and they get to bring one guest," Hendricks said. "As part of the experience, we're going to provide a jersey for them, have a meet-and-greet before the game, a great dinner at the rink and honour them on the big screen during the first period.
"They're so deserving of a night out, and this is just one of the ways we can say thanks. We're going to show them a good time."
The connections the Hendricks family has made over the years are proof of that and the impact Hendy's Heroes has had in the community. They're everyday men and women with the courage of anything but.
It's right there in the title.
"A lot of their stories are very personal; very emotional," Hendricks said. "I'm very thankful for the work they do in the Armed Forces, and I just want to offer support wherever I can.
"A hand. A hug. Whatever they need. I just want to be there for them, like they have for all of us."