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A day to pause, remember and thank veterans, troops

by Phil Coffey /
The phrase is a call to action for every player who pulls on a Montreal Canadiens jersey, displayed in full view for everyone who enters the dressing room.

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

Those words, of course, were not originally about hockey, but rather the urgings of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in World War I. His lines were not intended to exhort future generations of hockey players to win games, instead to soberly remember the carnage of war.

McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields on May 3, 1915 as a testament to the terrible destruction of the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium during "The Great War." Thousands of men gave what Abraham Lincoln called earlier in history "the last full measure of devotion."

Come Tuesday, fans will gather in 6 NHL arenas to enjoy hockey. For many, it will be a ritual conducted hundreds, if not thousands of times. It may not seem to have any connection to John McCrae and the fallen soldiers of which he wrote. But there will be reminders and tributes as NHL teams honor not only those who have served, but continue to honor those who are serving.

NHL coaches will wear poppies on their suit jackets to honor veterans Tuesday and several teams will hold special events. On Long Island, General Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be in attendance for the second-consecutive season as the Islanders play the Flyers.

In Detroit, the Red Wings will honor veterans prior to a rematch with the Penguins and fans will receive a Veterans Day lapel pin. The Los Angeles Kings will issue a commemorative Veterans Day postcard to fans attending their game against the Dallas Stars.

Tuesday is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the United States, a day set aside to recall and honor the sacrifices made by Canadian and American troops who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in past conflicts like World War I and World War II and who are together once again in Afghanistan today.

History shows there are many instances of NHL players putting down their sticks to pick up arms in defense of their countries.

Hall of Famer Johnny Bower, the popular Maple Leafs goalie, served for 3 years in World War II and was wounded twice. He returned and exchanged his rifle for a hockey stick and went on to 250-195-90 record, 3 Stanley Cups titles with the Leafs and 2 Vezina Trophies.

Joe Turner's story didn't end as happily. He got his chance in goal for the Detroit Red Wings against the Leafs on Feb. 5, 1942. He allowed 3 goals and came away with a tie in his first game. But later in 1942, he left the Wings to join the U.S. Marine Corps and was killed in action. A similar fate befell Red Garrett of the New York Rangers. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Navy in Nov. 25, 1944 when he was killed.

Those are just a few examples of bravery from NHL players.

Happily for hockey fans at the time, Bruins goalie Frankie Brimsek returned after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and was a standout goalie. Many NHL stars of the day served with the Canadian Armed Forces and continued to play on military teams that helped keep morale high among the troops.

Imagine seeing the Royal Canadian Air Force team of the day that featured the Bruins' famous "Kraut Line" of Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer and Milt Schmidt. New York Rangers great Frank Boucher formed the Ottawa Commandos, an all-star army team that won the 1943 Allan Cup.

Conn Smythe, the legendary Maple Leafs owner, was a major with the Royal Canadian Artillery and was wounded in an air raid in 1944.

That is just the shortest of lists to acknowledge those who have served both countries through the years and who have made it possible for those of us living in North America today to enjoy freedoms unheard of in other places around the globe.

The link continues today. The brother of Brian Leetch, the retired Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, is a Green Beret in the U.S. Army and Ben Stafford, a former member of the Flyers, is now serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq.

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