SUNRISE, Fla. -- When Gary Roskin talks about the life of his friend Gabe Accardi, the stories sound like something out of a riveting Tom Clancy novel or the latest action-movie blockbuster.
Upon graduating from Oswego State University in 2000, Accardi served on the United States Navy SEAL Teams and was deployed numerous times during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. After that, he worked under the CIA as a government contractor.
He was known as a leader of men and earned ribbons, badges and medals for his service.
"He was really smart," Roskin told FloridaPanthers.com. "He was the guy that you see in the movies and you read about in books. He was a badass. He the real thing. He was a great guy."
Long before those heroics, however, he was a hockey player.
A native of Glen Falls, New York, Accardi manned the crease as a goaltender both in the high school and collegiate ranks. In the early '90s, he backstopped his team to a pair of high school state championships and was eventually enshrined into the Glens Falls Athletic Hall of Fame.
So, when he moved to Deerfield Beach, Florida, he found solace at the rink.
That's where he met Roskin.
"We're always looking for goalies," Roskin laughed. "What a great find!"
Opening up about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that stemmed from his service, Accardi eventually approached Roskin with the idea of bringing a USA Warrior Ice Hockey Program to the area in order to create a haven for disabled veterans such as himself.
Founded in 2008, the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program aims to help wounded veterans by organizing and administering ice hockey programs (both sled and standing) that, per the program's official website, "provide a recreational, therapeutic experience and education."
Looking to get their program off the ground, Accardi suggested contacting the Florida Panthers.
"When Gabe told me about the USA Hockey Warriors program and what it was, I was like, 'Yeah, I'm in. I can do this with you, and I can make it happen,'" Roskin said. "I was confident. With the Panthers and their relationship with the military, I knew this was a no-brainer."
At the forefront of the organization ever since owner Vincent Viola, who graduated from West Point in 1977 and served in the 101st Airborne Division, purchased the team in 2013, veteran's issues has become one of the four primary pillars of focus for the Florida Panthers Foundation.
After speaking with members of the organization, Accardi, fellow veteran Nick Butterworth and Roskin applied for a Community Champions Grant -- which awards up to $25,000 to one local 501(c)(3) organization per game -- through their non-profit, the Hockey Development Group.
Started in 2016, the Panthers' Community Champions Grant Program, which is presented by Moss Construction and the Moss Foundation, has pledged to donate $5 million over five years.
"Veterans and veteran's issues is one of the pillars of our organization," said John Colombo, the Panthers Senior Director of the Florida Panthers Foundation and Community Relations. "When we say hockey is for everyone, we want to grow the game and practice what we preach. Being able to tie-in hockey and the growth of the game with helping veterans is a huge win for us."
On Sept. 4, Roskin was informed that not only had their organization been accepted by Statewide Amateur Hockey of South Florida (SAHOF) as a Warrior Team, but also that the Panthers had picked them as Community Champions for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
Unfortunately, on that same day, Accardi passed away before hearing the good news.
"When Gabe passed away, I lost the opportunity of a friendship that was going to be a lifelong friendship," Roskin said somberly. "He was the co-founder, and he still is. He was the motor."
While the majority of their donation from the Panthers will go directly to funding their newfound USA Warrior Hockey Program, a portion of those funds also went towards helping the team get to its first competitive tournament, the USA Hockey Warrior Classic, in October in Las Vegas.
Playing with heavy hearts after losing Accardi just a month earlier, the Florida Warriors, more inspired and committed than ever, went on to win the Tier 2 Championship at the annual event.
"These guys showed up at every game and to any meeting," Roskin said. "They were never late. They played their hearts out. They were the reason why we came back as champions."
In addition to earning their first championship banner, the team also brought a long a banner of their own to the tournament, one honoring Accardi's life and commitment to the team's mission.
"Even though he wasn't with us, he was with us," Roskin said.
Moving forward, Roskin and rest of the Florida Warriors are looking forward to continuing to build upon Accardi's vision. Not only do they plan to compete in future tournaments, but they also hope to host a tournament of their own one day, one that specifically honors Accardi.
By using hockey as a rehabilitation tool to overcome physical and mental disabilities sustained in service, Accardi, Roskin says, would often say that even helping one veteran was a victory.
"These guys, they live for hockey," Roskin said. "They've played hockey before, but it's not a requirement for our program. We're not looking for guys that played at high levels. We're looking for any veteran who qualifies to either play hockey with us because they know how to play or want to learn to play. We've got a lot of guys involved and ones that want to be involved."
Roskin and the rest the Florida Warriors were honored and presented with their Community Champions Grant when the Panthers hosted Los Angeles Kings at BB&T Center on Jan. 16.