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NHL Stadium Series

Avalanche, hockey provide 'escape' for military personnel

Stadium Series against Kings at Air Force important for former Army special forces member

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Kyle Staunton met Gabriel Landeskog on Jan. 13, when the Colorado Avalanche forward visited the U.S. Air Force Academy and pretended to be a cadet for a day.

Staunton told Landeskog how he had watched the Avalanche since he was a kid. In Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, he'd go the extra mile, walking a mile to download a game and a mile back to watch it in triple-digit heat.

"That's dedication right there, man," Landeskog said.

Staunton and Landeskog took a picture together, and Landeskog autographed Staunton's old Avalanche hat.

"Thank you for your service," Landeskog said.

 

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"You guys are amazing," Staunton said. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

That's only a snippet of the story and what it means to Staunton to have the Avalanche play the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2).

Staunton grew up in Colorado Springs and attended Rampart High School, 15 minutes from Falcon Stadium. He joined the Army, became a Green Beret and was part of the surge during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007.

For 15 months he served in a war zone -- four months in Baghdad, the rest of the time in Baqubah to the northeast -- often in harm's way.

"I was a front-line grunt," he said. "I was outside the wire almost every day. We usually got a day off during the week, but that was pretty much it. So, every chance I got, I'd watch the Avalanche."

Staunton and a friend, a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, would walk from their tents to the closest computer lab, which was about a mile away in Baghdad and not quite a mile in Baqubah. They would download a game onto a disc, walk back and watch it.

The desert weather didn't matter.

"It was the only thing that kept my mind off where I was," Staunton said. "I had a young family."

Staunton and his wife, Courtney, had a newborn son, Cory. They had a daughter, Emma, while he was deployed to Iraq again in 2009-10. At that time, he lived in a small, two-person building with a computer and Internet, so he could stream video.

"Hockey was my escape," Staunton said.

It is for lots of fans serving in the military overseas.

Another example: Lt. Col. Brian McKay, who oversees airmanship programs at the academy, grew up in St. Louis rooting for the St. Louis Blues. While he was deployed to Iraq about four years ago, he would watch the Blues in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and he'd deal with the time difference to do it.

"I'd wake up at 3 in the morning, watch the game, finish it about 5 in the morning, go back to sleep for two hours, and then wake up," McKay said. "I didn't do it every day, but when a hockey game would be on TV, I would try to do that."

Staunton is now a civilian working in cadet logistics at the academy, issuing uniforms to the cadets. He issued Landeskog the green flight suit Landeskog wore while sitting in the cockpit of a T-53 training plane and flying an F-22 fighter jet in a simulator.

He has been to only one Avalanche game, a couple of years ago. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in crowds.

But he is going to try to go to this one. He won tickets to the Stadium Series via Vet Tix, or the Veteran Tickets Foundation, which receives donations and passes along free and discounted tickets to military personnel and veterans.

"I can't describe the excitement that a lot of people have," he said. "I mean, I've talked to a lot of people. Everybody wants to go. … The atmosphere that this game brings here, it's going to be amazing. It's going to really be amazing."

Landeskog hopes so.

"Ultimately that's what sports is," Landeskog said. "We're entertainment. It gives people an escape for a few hours of just kind of zoning into watching your favorite team play or your favorite players play, kind of zoning out from the real world for a little bit, and that's what we do.

"I've met some service people before, special forces guys in the past, and it's always very humbling. It puts things in perspective. You say that all the time, but it really does. If we think that we have a tough schedule or tough travel, it's not even close to what these guys are going through.

"These men and women are incredible, and we appreciate everything that they do."

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