As strength and conditioning coach of the Atlanta Thrashers
for nine years, Ray Bear bore a military bearing. He didn't fit the tired drill sergeant stereotype, but the crew cut and the seriousness in his squint always remained in the background even when his good humor stood out front.
Ten years before he went to work for the Thrashers, he did a combat tour as a medic in the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division during the first Gulf War. He served in active duty for three years and then for three more in the National Guard.
Two months ago, Bear put bookends on his military career when he resigned from the Thrashers to accept a new civilian position at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that the Army created to train, as Bear put it, some of the U.S. military's elite soldiers.
"It wasn't monetary," said Bear, who is one of only nine people in the country working in such a capacity with the military. "The main reason was I get the chance to keep training elite athletes -- and these guys are elite athletes -- and I get to stay home with my family at the same time. It's a win-win situation. In my eyes, I get to contribute to my country again.
"It's a very humbling feeling being in a situation that is brand new and a brand-new program that I'm very familiar with and that is dear to my heart. For me, I feel it's a great honor to work with guys of this kind of caliber."
Thrashers president Don Waddell, who hired him when he was a minor-league strength coordinator with the Atlanta Braves, said Bear did "an outstanding job."
"I'm so happy for him and his family," Waddell said. "I can't say enough good things about him. It's a loss for us that we have to overcome but we will. We wish him nothing but the best."
An Ohio native, Bear said leaving the Thrashers was "a very difficult decision to make." Starting with the 2005-06 season, he said he suggested that the strength and conditioning coach travel on all of the team's road trips and Bear did just that for the last five seasons -- failing to miss a single game for family reasons, though Waddell left him that out if he wanted it.
"Stretching is becoming such a big part of the game and maintaining players' bodies after games," Waddell said. "Most teams have it. If you look at our history, there are a lot of things that go into it. There were years where we led the League in man-games-lost. The last few years, especially with [goalie] Kari [Lehtonen, who had a troubled injury history], we were [No. 3 or 4] in the League with the least man games lost. It keeps your main guys playing and it gives you a better opportunity to win."
However, as much professional success as Bear might have enjoyed with the Thrashers, the travel schedule took its toll on his family. His wife, Maria, also works, and with children ages 8, 6 and 3 (and another on the way), Bear said a new job that will offer him the chance to see his children at night, on the weekends and on holidays -- minus the travel -- was the right decision.
"It was a hard decision," he said. "Once I'm here and doing my job and seeing family, you never second-guess it."
Bear said he grew close with some players like Eric Boulton
and Chris Thorburn
, who trained with him in the offseason at the team's suburban practice facility. He enjoyed when the 2008 All-Star Game came to Philips Arena and the thrills he got standing next to celebrities like Christie Brinkley.
"Any memory in the weight room with Eric Boulton
usually ended with a laugh," he said. "The people in general I got to be associated with, friendships I got to create and the camaraderie. It's a very tight institution, the society that is hockey ... on the road with these guys in general, they become your second family. You spend more time with them than you do with your family during the regular season. I have no bad memories. ... You have good and bad times. You bicker, but you make up. You get over it very easily. When you spend that much time with people, that's what's going to happen. Overall it was great."
While there might be no "bad" memories for him, there is an unhappy one that he said will stay with him.
"Dan [Snyder] stayed and trained with me the summer [of 2003]," Bear said of the Thrashers forward who died as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident that fall. "It was a very hard memory and a very sad memory and one I'll always remember. Just during that summer, it was so funny. Things Dan would do and say were so funny."
"I get the chance to keep training elite athletes -- and these guys are elite athletes -- and I get to stay home with my family at the same time. It's a win-win situation. In my eyes, I get to contribute to my country again." -- Ray Bear
But now he has moved from a world of games to a world that includes the harsh reality of war. Citing security reasons, Bear would not be too specific about what his new job entails, but he described it this way: "The command wanted to be able to train these soldiers as if they are athletes because that's what they are. They saw a need for a different type of training to be able to enhance everything these guys are doing. The athletic ability of these soldiers is really unbelievable. They have what it takes to be at that level."
He has designed the soldiers' training regimen and said he has great support from the military in terms of dieticians, physical therapists and farther up the chain of command.
Bear said the soldiers he trains are curious when they learn of his background.
"They think it's pretty cool, they really do," he said. "I've had a lot questions, 'Why would you leave?' They think it's great. They think it's awesome that the military, the army particularly, has dedicated the resources they have to train them and minimize injuries and maximize performance.
"I get a great reaction. The respect that goes with the fact that I have worked with pro athletes, it's instant credibility that, hey, at least for the most part, I have tricked enough people that I know what I'm doing."