FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss slid across the ice on his left pad, demonstrating inside-edge push drills. He had two young goaltenders in tow, pressing hard to keep pace. At the other end of the ice, kids were cutting in and out of cones in a dizzying display of energy.
This could have been a summer hockey camp almost anywhere, but the specifics of this one were unique. On Monday the veteran goaltender was at Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world. Cleland Ice Rink felt like an anomaly -- a hockey rink on a U.S. Army base -- especially on a hot July day near the South Carolina border.
"It's funny how it all came to be, but I used to spend time in North Carolina for a couple years," said Greiss, whose wife is a former resident of the state. "It's great to have a hockey rink right here on the base. They're all great people."
This is the third year Greiss, a 32-year-old from Germany, has come to the camp sponsored by the United Heroes League, an organization that provides athletic opportunities for military kids. He got involved through former Islanders teammate Eric Boulton, who got him to first attend the camp. Greiss is so closely involved with the event that it now bears his name: the Thomas Greiss Hockey Camp.
"I can't say enough about him," said Maj. Mike Adams, a UHL representative who coaches teams in the local hockey association. "Hockey players are a special breed. Thomas is a little bit above that. He maintains a relationship with the kids he's worked with in the summertime throughout the year. He contacts them, they contact him. I've seen it drive my players to really become better, and they really understand the value of giving back to the game."
The 82 campers hosted by Greiss are a long way from the NHL, but hockey is vital to their lives. Most of the skaters are sons and daughters of Special Forces soldiers, who are deployed frequently and under dangerous circumstances.
"The fathers and mothers of our kids are gone a lot, so hockey fills that role for these kids, whether it's a hockey coach that's acting as a father or mother," Adams said. "It provides a healthy outlet for some of those feelings a kid may not necessarily understand. It also provides the opportunity to put the them on the ice for an hour and a half and decompress a little bit."
Caleb Ivers, 9, has played hockey for four years. As he came off the ice, his mother, Samantha, sat down next to him and unsnapped his chin strap.
"We don't have the opportunities to go a lot of places right now because my husband (Master Sgt. Alan Ivers) is deployed," Samantha said. "I have the kids by myself. Acknowledging that these kids are a little bit different, it makes this a big deal."
Greiss agreed that military families deserve special attention.
"I do it just to give back," Greiss said. "Politics is one side, but [the families] make a huge commitment for the whole country that is very appreciated. Also, the people are great to work with, all the families, all the kids. Everybody is helping out and chipping in. It's a great experience."
Enlisting the help of others is a way of life for military families. Col. Brad Moses is a proud hockey dad and the United States Army Special Operations Command Chief of Staff. He has spent long stretches apart from his 16-year-old son, Lucas, who has played hockey for 11 years.
"I have 66 months' worth of combat deployment time," Moses said. "Some of those life lessons about hard work, a positive mental attitude, applying yourself, teamwork ... Thomas will certainly share those messages while he's here this week."
No one at the rink had more going on than Kristen Ralston. She has four kids on the ice this week and a 3-year-old daughter who will be in skates soon enough. Her husband, Maj. Mark Ralston, recently returned from his third deployment, one that came at a cost.
"That was one of the deployments where he lost a friend, his team sergeant," Kristen Ralston said. "So hockey was a way for the kids to escape from the deployment, the one thing that gave them that mental break. They didn't have to worry about funerals or [ask] 'Is Dad OK?' I could put them on the ice and I could see that they were OK."
With hockey, there is also the issue of affordability. The UHL offers grants that outfit players with equipment and help curb the cost of playing and attending camps. The NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association have made monetary donations to the UHL.
"Hockey is really expensive," Ralston said. "A camp like this would cost me $800 per kid. When you have four kids in hockey, that's not doable. But I can promise my kid, you can come out here on the ice for a full week with Thomas and you're going to be just fine."
Ralston looked out toward the ice and dabbed away a tear.
"So, yes," she said, "this is big."
All photos are courtesy of U.S. Army