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Army Veteran Honored by NHL Before Landing Job with Preds

Brian Bailey Started 7Element Hockey Program for Veterans, Now Holds Day Job at Ford Ice Center

by Brooks Bratten @brooksbratten / Senior Communications & Content Coordinator

Brian Bailey wasn't looking for recognition when he started all of this back in 2018.

After 20-plus years of service and nine combat tours in the United States Army, all he wanted to do was give active-duty military members, veterans and first responders a chance to get on the ice and play the game he's always loved.

The rapid growth, the overwhelmingly positive feedback, the support from former Predators players Chris Mason and Hal Gill - that's all been a bonus.

He certainly wasn't expecting to become the grand-prize winner of the NHL's Stick Tap for Service, presented by Navy Federal Credit Union, and receive not only a pair of tickets to a 2019 Stanley Cup Final game, but also a $30,000 donation to his organization.

But hard work for a good cause pays off - especially when those in the hockey world take notice of what's been going on in Nashville.

In May of 2019, Bailey and his veteran-and-first-responder-athletic fund, 7Element, took home the ultimate honor after being selected by the NHL and Navy Federal from hundreds of entries, with the League stating: "[Brian] truly embodies what it means to provide mentorship, service and sacrifice to his community and his country."

It's one thing to read that quote in a press release - it's another to actually speak to the man who grew up playing hockey in Boston, walked into an Army recruiting station on Jan. 6, 1999, for the first time and then re-enlisted on Sept. 10, 2001, of all days.

He's invaded Afghanistan, helped to train the Iraqi army and fended off ISIS to retake the city of Mosul. And now here he is, an American hero, trading in his military gear for a different kind of arsenal.

During all of his missions spent defending freedom halfway around the world, Bailey never lost his fandom for the game. After returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from one of those excursions in 2014, one of his platoon sergeants mentioned heading down to Nashville to play hockey at this place called Ford Ice Center.

The ribbon had recently been cut at the facility in Antioch, Tennessee, which was being run by the Predators, and Bailey headed down to check it out and play some pickup hockey. Except for deployments, he's rather certain he hasn't missed a weekend outing since.

That final mission to Mosul came in 2017, and Bailey knew he'd be transitioning out of the Army soon, ready to take on a new challenge. He wasn't the only veteran looking to play hockey - not by a long shot - and so an idea was born.

He'd saved up nine tours worth of combat pay - every cent of it - and he was ready to invest it back into starting 7Element. There was no question as to where he'd do it, either.

"I love the hockey community in Nashville, and it's one of the main reasons we decided we wanted to set up 7Element here," Bailey said. "We did look in other markets, but we just want to be here, we just want to be part of this community. My wife and my kids, they don't want to go anywhere… It's an amazing hockey market, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Bailey had seen hockey games put on for veterans and active-duty military members before, but he wanted to do something bigger, to give participants the full experience.

And while it may not be quite the same treatment Pekka Rinne and Roman Josi receive on a nightly basis in the NHL, it's pretty darn close.

"We've got a group of volunteers, and we come in and set the locker rooms up, there's a jersey for everybody, we set the jerseys up, they come in and drop their equipment, we set their equipment up for them, we provided the tape, basically anything they would need," Bailey said. "We wanted to give them the whole experience because a lot of these guys just started playing hockey. They didn't grow up playing hockey, they didn't get the experience of having any type of locker room support or anything like that, so we wanted to give that to them."

The atmosphere is one-of-a-kind, but more importantly, so is the support system.

Among the skaters are active military, transitioning veterans and those who have been away from combat for a while. It's the transitioning veteran time period, Bailey says, that can be tricky. The absence of constant structure and schedule combined with the absence of daily camaraderie with fellow troops can be a struggle. It's a period when veteran suicides are most likely, and some may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Bailey and 7Element don't shy away from these truths. Instead, he wants the locker room to not only be a place to marvel at a jersey emblazoned with their surname, but also a place of discussion and encouragement.

"We've got these three tiers of people, so you have the active duty guys talking to the transitioning guys about what it's like to transition, but then you've got the transitioning guys talking to the guys that have already left," Bailey said. "Those guys that are out for a while, they're telling them life's going to be OK, you're going to figure it out, just don't make any negative actions between now and then and you'll figure it out. That's really kind of the message we have going on there."

It started out as an event - one or two per month - where ice would be rented and games would be played. But word started to spread, and the donations - both ice time and equipment - started to pour in. 

Mason was one of those who took notice of 7Element after meeting Bailey following an adult hockey camp at Ford Ice. The two had a conversation, and the former Predators goaltender turned broadcaster was instantly struck by not only Bailey as a person, but what he was doing for the military and first responders.

Tweet from @7Element6: 7Element Hockey featured on @NHLonNBCSports @BrdgstoneArena for #HockeyDayInAmerica @cmace30 @Skillsy75 @PredsNHL @NHL #7element #veteranHockey #veteran #nashville #Preds pic.twitter.com/gT38Su20YY

"As an athlete, they say the same that when you come out of the military, one of the hardest things is you don't have your group or your team anymore, and it's hard to adapt and just go on your own," Mason said. "He created 7Element for that reason, and I thought it was such a great idea. He was a great guy, and we just hit it off. We chatted the night away, and I told him to let me know whenever he had events, things like that, because we'd like to support him moving forward."

Mason and fellow-player-turned-broadcaster Gill have kept their word. A portion of the proceeds from the Predators Alumni Camp went to 7Element, and nowadays the funds made through Mason and Gill's Bag Chucker clothing and apparel line is also going to the cause.

"The hockey community in Nashville, it's just full of good people that want to help good people, and he's one of the best around," Mason said of Bailey. "It's an awesome cause, he's an awesome guy and when you see the people that are actually benefiting from this and how good their spirits are, it really shows how much an impact 7Element is having on the community. Every chance we can, we try to donate tickets for some of the veterans and first responders to come to games, and they're huge supporters of the Preds. They love the Preds, and it's just a great organization."

Bailey can't get enough of the game as evidenced by his involvement as a coach in youth leagues at Ford Ice Center Antioch, as well as teaching in adult classes on top of everything that comes with 7Element. But as people who love lacing up the skates know, there's something special about being on a frozen sheet.

"If you've got a 6- or 7-year-old kid that's running 10 miles-an-hour into the boards and he jumps right back up and he's laughing, he learns that he's going to hit into the boards, he's going to get busted up, but he's going to be fine, just like life," Bailey said. "A lot of these veterans, even though they've been through a lot, I think they forget that. There's a lot of the same dynamic that goes on when they get on the ice, too."

Tweet from @7Element6: A look in on the last few 7E Veteran Hockey Program skates. @FordIceCenter. In this crazy time It���s important for our military heroes to get together and talk, play hockey and clear their heads! Let���s goooo!!@Skillsy75 @cmace30 @Bradm14 @PredsNHL #7element #Nashville pic.twitter.com/o5LdtjwUPm

Starting in June at Ford Ice Center Antioch, 7Element will host an event every single Saturday, a testament to how far the organization has come in less than one year. Bailey doesn't plan on slowing down either as he continues to welcome military members and first responders into his new family.

Keeping us safe - at home and abroad - was his profession, but hockey has always been his passion. And while the work may be stressful at times, the payoff is more than worth it.

Bailey didn't expect all of this fanfare - he just wanted to get back on the ice again. He never could have imagined how many friends he was about to gain.

"It is selfish a little bit on my part, because it fulfills a need for me to build something larger than myself," Bailey said. "The feeling of watching it grow and everybody being a part of it and enjoying it, that's good, too. And then on the other selfish side of it as well, I get to play hockey… I can't encapsulate all of the amazingness that comes with that."

The story you just read was originally written in May of 2019. Since then, a few things have changed for Bailey - perhaps most notably an office at Ford Ice Center Antioch. 

Yes, Bailey visits with much greater regularity now that he serves as business operations manager for the twin-rink facility, a perfect role to accept as he transitioned out of the military and into the civilian sector. 

Bailey was nearing the end of his time in the Army when he sat down for a meeting with Ford Ice Center General Manager Danny Butler. The two started discussing Bailey's future with Butler asking what was next. 

"I said, 'I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up,'" Bailey said wryly. "And he said, 'What would you think about working for us?'"

Bailey retired on April 30, and he started in an official capacity with Ford Ice Center the very next day. The work would have been challenging enough, but the pandemic has added another layer to the tasks at hand. Bailey is well-equipped to handle it all, however, and he's learned plenty along the way too. 

"Right off the bat, Danny added me to the COVID working group, and I was able to get in there and see how all the planning happens within the organization," Bailey said. "I was absolutely blown away with how adaptable some of the employees are in the organization, like really dynamic thinkers. They're creating simple solutions to complex problems so fast that I wanted to grab them up and take them up to Fort Campbell and say, 'Look, this is how you do it, watch these guys.' They're just all over it, so it was pretty amazing."

Already a fan before he wore the Predators logo professionally, Bailey has an immense amount of pride for his new day job, just as he did when he fought for his country. 

"I won't lie, I bragged a little bit when I was transitioning out and I was listening to what some of the other guys were getting ready to do," Bailey said. "It's exciting and they had a lot of great stuff lined up, a lot of them are going off to college or whatnot, but I was like, 'Hey, I'm going to be a business operations manager for the Nashville Predators running one of the Ford Ice Centers, and everybody was like, 'How the heck did you get that job?'"

Bailey has certainly earned it. After volunteering, coaching, organizing 7Element events and getting to know Ford Ice Center in and out, he was a natural fit. His honor from the NHL was well deserved too, and since then, 7Element has grown to approximately 860 members with 380 actively part of the programs at Ford Ice Center. 

He wasn't looking for recognition back then when 7Element began - and he still isn't now - but he deserves it nonetheless. Bailey never imagined any of this, but when Tom Hanks's character said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates,' he understood.

"If I look at my career in my life, even in the military, I kind of 'Forrest Gumped' my way through it," Bailey said. "I just somehow ended up in these places in time and history and was able to witness and help change my environment and help change history along the way, and then here I am jumping into an organization like the Nashville Predators… Pride, I can't state that enough. I tell everybody that I work for the Preds. I was in the 101st Airborne Division, and now I'm with the Preds. How does this happen? Just Forrest Gumping it."

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