When Andy Boutilier, president of the Veterans Hockey League (VHL), helped create the organization two years ago, he never imagined the group would more than double in size, or how much it would help veterans who could no longer afford to play hockey, an often costly sport.
Most importantly, he didn’t realize that an organization as big as the Tampa Bay Lightning might get involved.
“The impact has been immeasurable,” Boutilier said. “The Lightning have offered donations to help us raise money and they have let us use their facilities, but their behind the scenes support has been crucial in fulfilling our mission.”
That mission started after Boutilier, who went right from high school and spent six years as a member of the Marine Corps infantry, decided to be a part in making the VHL because of the special bond he had always felt with people who had served in the military.
Boutilier, now medically and honorably separated from the Marine Corps after his second enlistment due to a service-connected injury, found his calling from another source too.
Chairman and Governor of the Lightning, Jeff Vinik, played a part in influencing Boutilier to make the VHL into a recognized charitable organization.
“Jeff Vinik’s commitment to the community since he arrived in Tampa was an inspiration,” Boutilier said. “He’s inspired people, myself included, to become more involved. So after identifying a need, the solution kind of became clear that the VHL needed to be created.”
Now Thursday marks the second year in a row the VHL will be skating at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, along with Stanley Cup Champion captain, Dave Andreychuk. The VHL’s practice held on the Lighting’s rink is one of the many festivities taking place for the Bolts’ Military Appreciation Night.
Team members lace up in the Lightning locker room prior to practice at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It is also a welcomed sign of the Lightning’s continued commitment with not only an important non-profit, but an organization that wants to fight the notion that Tampa is not a place for hockey.
“The Lightning organization and the city of Tampa get a lot of grief about not being considered a hockey market,” Boutilier said. “Nothing is further from the truth and the creation of this league is one small example of why it is simply just not true.”
With hopes of growing the VHL to outside the borders of Florida, there is one thing that will never change about the league’s inception – where it came from and who helped make it possible.
“The VHL will forever be known as an innovative program that was started in Tampa by Bolts fans and that the Lightning organization was the first to step in,” Boutilier said. “As an organization it’s humbling and a motivating realization that the Bolts recognize what we are trying to do and that we are heading in the right direction.”
That very idea has brought a tremendous amount of loyalty from the VHL toward the Lightning as they continue their relationship. It is also one the two can watch progress together to things they never thought were possible for veterans with an interest in hockey.
For more information log on to www.veteranhockeyleague.org.