When the players from Soldier On's sled hockey program gather to practice in Toronto on Thursday, it will be the first time many of them will be on the ice together.
That's why Soldier On captain Eric Payne has a realistic view of his team's chances against the USA Warriors in the NHL Sled Series game at Bowie Ice Arena in Bowie, Maryland, at 11:30 a.m. on Friday. The game is part of the celebration of hockey and the armed services leading into the 2018 Coors Light Stadium Series game between the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS, NHL.TV).
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"We'll get together [in Toronto] and then we'll go out and play the next day, so the expectations are low," Payne said with a laugh. "But the expectation for fun is high."
Soldier On was founded in 2006 to help former members of the Canadian Armed Forces with illness or injury continue to be active. The USA Warriors ice hockey program serves a similar purpose for veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
The teams will be playing to win when they face off on Friday, but the game will be about more than that.
"Really looking forward to this," Payne said. "I've kind of been following the USA Warriors program since slightly before the Soldier On program started up in Canada. But I was fortunate enough to make it down to Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland) in April 2007. I got to meet some groups of wounded and injured at Walter Reed, and the comrade-in-arms thing really translates."
Soldier On's team includes players from Edmonton in the West to Payne's hometown, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in the East. Soldier On and the USA Warriors will receive a tour of the Naval Academy in Annapolis on Saturday before attending the Stadium Series game.
Getting to see the Capitals and Maple Leafs up close will be one of the highlights of the weekend for Payne.
"The area of Canada that I'm in, it's a good 12-15 hour drive up to Montreal or the same down to Boston," Payne said. "Those are the two closest places to watch an NHL game, so this is phenomenal."
Payne, a retired Master Seaman with the Royal Canadian Navy, had his left leg amputated above the knee after he was injured in a motorcycle accident in April 2005. He also was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2015.
The 51-year-old grew up playing hockey and played throughout his 23-year military career, but thought his playing days were probably over after his accident.
"Then they put me back out on the ice, and I had a puck and I had a stick and I thought, 'Maybe I can do some things,'" he said. "So I got myself a sled, but I was the only one here that had one."
That changed after Charlottetown hosted the World Sledge Hockey Challenge (sled hockey or para ice hockey is known a sledge hockey in Canada), a tournament featuring the national teams from Canada, the United States, Norway and Japan, in 2008 and 2009. Funds raised while hosting the two tournaments were used to purchase sleds and other equipment and to promote the sport throughout Prince Edward Island.
From that, Payne helped found the Prince Edward Island Ice Breakers Sledge Hockey Program in 2009. This season, the Ice Breakers have 17 players, male and female, ranging in age from 15 to 55.
For his efforts in promoting the sport, Payne was named Hockey Canada Ambassador in December.
"It's done incredible things for me," Payne said of sled hockey. "One, I get to play a sport and continue to play a sport that I've played all my life. Two, I get to experience with other people returning to the game when they also thought they wouldn't play again. It's also the ability to give it to somebody who hasn't had the opportunity to be able to play the sport growing up, which is a dynamic of those who grew up with disabilities versus those who became disabled."