There are few privileges that top serving the United States as a member of the armed forces, but on Wednesday, even former soldier Zach Sechrist admitted that one in particular came pretty close.
Sechrist and seven others no longer enlisted in active duty took to the Tampa Bay Times Forum ice, home to the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning, to usher in an official practice of the Veterans Hockey League.
The Veterans Hockey League is an innovate program that brings together the great game of hockey and United States military veterans.
Or, in other words as the group’s official web site puts it, “hockey for heroes.”
Still in its infancy, the Veterans Hockey League started out as a community initiative spearheaded by Andy Boutilier, who several years ago reached out to fellow veterans who shared a mutual, yet equally passionate interest in playing the game of hockey, but who did not necessarily have the available funds to play on a consistent basis.
“At first I looked around for groups who catered specifically to hockey, and when I didn’t find much, I started thinking what I could do personally to get more involved,” Boutilier said. “It turned out to be a great way to help veterans get on the ice and enjoy the game, stay physically and mentally active, and most importantly, fray the costs of what unfortunately is a very expensive sport to play.”
But Boutilier says the inspiration to play in the league extends far beyond just the benefit it provides to one’s health.
Upon completion of his duties in the United States Marine Corps, Boutilier often missed the sense of camaraderie he felt while serving in the armed forces. In order to fill this void, he turned to one of his greatest passions to reignite the sense of unity, not on a military base or anything of the sort, but rather within an ice rink.
“I knew if I could just gather up a small group at first, it would bring back some of that nostalgia they had,” Boutilier added. “I had a certain feeling, and I knew they would have it too.”
Area veterans on the ice today at the Tampa Bay Times Forum
For the majority of Wednesday’s session, the eight veterans participated in line rushes, as well as several other drills. The overall theme of the day, however, was to just get out on the ice as a team and have some fun. Of course, skating within the friendly confines of their favorite NHL team made the experience even more special.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Sechrist said. “It’s a once and a lifetime experience, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
Making it all possible was the Lightning organization itself, whose work in conjunction with the group served as an extension of owner Jeff Vinik’s commitment to the Tampa Bay community.
That sentiment alone, according to Boutilier, was perhaps even more special than skating on the Times Forum ice.
“It’s truly phenomenal and humbling what Mr. Vinik has accomplished here the past few years,” Boutilier said. “The entire organization has been unbelievably generous, not just with this event today, but all of the behind-the-scenes work they do with our military. It is clear to me that the organization inside and out honestly want to make a difference.”