ARLINGTON, Va. -- Sam Sommerville skated onto the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex with a mission Friday.
The 14-year-old youth hockey player from Virginia wanted to challenge Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, one of his favorite players, to a race. Sommerville got two chances; he lost one, and tied the other. That was enough for him on a memorable day watching practice and skating with Capitals players afterward.
Sommerville and his parents, Jeromy, a major in the Marine Corps, and Liz, were one of three military families invited to attend practice in conjunction the United Heroes League and the 2018 Coors Light Stadium Series Legacy Project on Friday.
The United Heroes League is an organization dedicated to empowering military families and helping children stay active through sports.
Oshie and Capitals defensemen Brooks Orpik, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen presented a $25,000 donation from the League and Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE) Foundation to provide programming that fits within the NHL's Declaration of Principles for D.C.-area military families.
The families watched practice and were presented with hockey gear and tickets to see the Capitals face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2018 Coors Light Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).
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Tanner Martinez is only 5, but he too wanted to race Oshie during his visit to practice Friday. His father, Anthony, a former United States Navy helicopter pilot now serving in the U.S. Navy Reserves, just laughed as his son, wearing a homemade cape with "Oshie" stitched onto the back, got to ride on his hero's shoulders for a few laps around the rink.
"To me, I think that's the one thing about this sport that's different - it's very welcoming to everyone," Anthony Martinez said. "And that's awesome. The players take their time and engage with the fanbase a lot."
Tanner Martinez was joined by his mother, Makenzie, brother, Uriah, 7, and sister, Emilia, 2. The cape was made by Makenzie for "Super Heroes Day" at Tanner's school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He insisted on dressing as Oshie.
Dan Smith, a United States Navy Petty Officer 1st class, brought his wife, Michelle, and kids, Julia, 3, and Lea, 7, to Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Friday. Smith grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, skating on frozen ponds, and played the sport until joining the military.
"In 14 years I've never had anything like this happen," Dan Smith said. "It's a super huge privilege and it's coincided perfectly with my daughters falling in love with hockey.
Julia was a whirlwind of activity, taking in the sights and sounds at practice.
"She's in her own cloud of happiness," Michelle Smith said.
Lea Smith will start a learn-to-play hockey program next week and was most excited about the hockey gear given to the kids, including hats, shoulder pads, sticks, gloves and much more.
Sommerville, Martinez and Smith will be honored on the ice during the first intermission on Saturday, another way the League and its partners are showing their appreciation for military personnel who endure long deployments in service to their country and are too often away from their families for months and years at a time.
"What an opportunity," Sommerville said. "On behalf of the United Heroes and the NHL, this is just such an awesome chance to bring the families together and share this and find common ground with hockey."
During the NHL's Green Month in March, and in celebration of the Stadium Series, the League, Capitals and MSE Foundation will place seven NHL Green - Recycle the Game donation nets in community rinks across the Washington, D.C., region.
MSE Foundation and Legacy Project partner Leveling the Playing Field, which helps underprivileged children participate in sports, will collect gently used hockey gear and donate it to UHL.
Other events and activations surrounding game week were held by the Industry Growth Fund (IGF), a joint creation by the League and the NHLPA to help grow the sport of hockey. The IGF supports in-classroom, street hockey and on-ice programs.
On Thursday, 25 students from Germantown Elementary School in Annapolis went on a field trip to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium for a behind-the-scenes look at how an outdoor game is put together, and an ice-making 101 session with the League's professional crew.
The trip was part of the IGF's Future Goals Program, an on-line learning program that uses hockey to teach STEM concepts to students. The students were surprised at the end of the event with tickets to the 2018 Coors Light Stadium Series game.
Also on Thursday, Capitals staff visited Germantown Elementary to lead 80 Future Goals students in an hour-long street hockey assembly. A full set of street hockey equipment was donated to the school, along with a specially designed curriculum, including posters explaining drills for physical education teachers and a Hockey 101 booklet for students, who also received a surprise visit from the Stanley Cup and had their pictures taken with it.
IGF hosted a Learn to Play clinic later Thursday at the Naval Academy's Brigade Sports Complex, an on-ice initiative developed by the League and the NHLPA to offer more families a chance to experience hockey. Participants from the Washington Capitals' Learn to Play program took part in an on-ice clinic and a graduation ceremony. All participants received tickets to the Stadium Series game.