During the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia the USA men’s ice hockey team wanted to honor fallen military soldiers.
Underneath their Team USA jersey was a patch of the flag stitched onto the top left of every player’s shoulder pads. And each member of the team was assigned a soldier that was killed in battle for whom to play.
Defenseman Paul Martin was playing in the memory of MSG James “Tre” Ponder III, a member of the Night Stalkers that was sent on a rescue mission to save SEAL Team 10 in 2005 in an event documented by the movie “Lone Survivor.” Eight Night Stalkers and eight SEALS in a helicopter were all killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their helicopter while it was landing.
Ponder’s family watched the Olympics with extra enthusiams.
“We were cheering for the US anyway, but we would zero in on Paul,” said Ponder’s widow Leslie. “It’s very much an honor. We feel blessed that the US hockey team chose to do a quiet tribute for these quiet professionals.”
Martin wrote a letter to the Ponder family – Leslie and their two children, daughters Elizabeth and Samantha – to share his appreciation of the sacrifice Tre made for his country.
“They appreciated the small token of writing them a letter and let them know we were thinking about them while we competed in Sochi,” Martin said.
On March 4 in Nashville the Ponder family and Shea Goodnature, whose father Corey was also in the helicopter with Tre and lost his life, met Martin prior to the Penguins game against the Predators.
“When you get to meet the true heroes, the men and women that defend our country and give us that freedom, you try not to take it for granted,” Martin said. “To have someone lost in battle and to be able to meet their family and the sacrifice they made is special for us and we appreciate that.”
Leslie gave Martin a challenge coin that Tre had. It is the Night Stalkers pin with the message of “Don’t Quit.”
“It’s definitely special for me. I will cherish and keep it close my entire life,” Martin said. “She didn’t have to do that. It’s an honor to have that.”
Martin, who has also sponsored Paul’s Platoon, where he purchases four tickets to Penguins’ home games and distributes them to military families, broke his hand while playing in Sochi and wasn’t originally going to make the trip to Nashville with the team. However, Leslie reached out to the Penguins since her family resides in Nashville and asked if she could thank Martin in person for his letter and for representing her husband in the Olympics.
“I was fortunate to be able to come,” Martin said. “With my injury I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it. When I found out that Leslie emailed our organization I asked coach (Dan Bylsma) and our GM Ray (Shero) if it was a possibility that I could go. They said yes right away.”
The Ponder family and Goodnature also met with Bylsma, US assistant coach Tony Granato and US general manager David Poile.
“It’s very humbling,” Leslie said. “My husband Tre was my husband, dad to my kids. I saw him as a father and a husband. To know that people see him as a hero is humbling. It’s been eight years since he was killed, but he’s still remembered. It leaves you speechless.”