WASHINGTON -- When the horn sounded at the conclusion of practice at Nationals Park on Wednesday, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson raised his arms as though he was celebrating a goal, then wrapped one of them around one of the wounded soldiers who was given a chance to participate.
The USA Warriors were honored throughout the day by the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals, one day before the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA). The wounded military personnel had their picture taken with the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, then skated with the Blackhawks later in the afternoon.
"Having those warriors out there is fun," Hjalmarsson said. "You can see how they lit up in their eyes to be out there with us playing. We think it's equal fun for us too. We just want to show our appreciation for what they've been doing. We've done it a couple of times now and it's a lot of fun."
Daly was thrilled the League had a chance to give the nation's heroes an opportunity to meet some players and share the spotlight during one of its premier events.
"We've always been very close to the [USA] Warriors, going back a number of years, and actually the Chicago Blackhawks organization when they won the Cup in 2010," Daly said. "They made a trip down here and connected with the [USA] Warriors. It's something we feel strongly about. Obviously, Washington is a perfect platform to honor the military and all they do for us."
During practice, the Blackhawks and the USA Warriors competed in a game of shinny and had the chance to discuss the game with some of their favorite players. It was a day they won't soon forget.
"It means the world to us," said Mike Cain, who lost his right leg in Iraq in 2003, then had his left leg amputated because of nerve damage 10 years later. "We come out here and a lot of people think these guys are celebrities because they're NHL players, but to us they're just friends of ours because we've known them for so many years and we've gotten to hang out with them. We've done stuff with the Blackhawks for the past three years and the Caps have done so much for our hockey program. They've been very huge supporters."
"It's special. It's a lot of fun," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think they look forward to it and our guys really enjoy it. It's three games we've had with these guys almost three years in a row, a couple of times at Soldier Field.
"The thrill and the excitement of playing against your heroes, it's been fun. Those guys are sweating when they're done. They didn't take a warm-up like we did today, so we had a little bit of an advantage. But I think everybody at the end of the enjoyed themselves."