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Fort Campbell Soldiers encourage Olympic champions

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators
Story by Stacy Rzepka (BACH Public Affairs Office)

FT. CAMPBELL, Ky. – Olympic hype is over and although the USA men's hockey team didn't take the gold, they made the games very special to three Fort Campbell Soldiers.

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Sgt. John Wawruck, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Gray and Spc. Aaron Ritter, all from Fort Campbell's Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB), met with USA Olympic hockey players Feb. 4 in Nashville before the lighting of the torch.

“Every winter growing up, we used to spray the streets with water and wait for it to freeze so we could get out and play,” said Sgt. John Wawruck, WTB squad leader. Wawruck grew up playing hockey and now shares his love of the sport with his two sons. “My youngest son’s first game was watching the Predators smash Tampa Bay in December,” he said.

Wawruck is one of three Soldiers who adopted USA Olympic men’s hockey team players. "My boys just went nuts when they found out I was chosen to adopt a Predator." Wawruck adopted Ryan Suter, defenseman for the Predators, through an Operation Homefront initiative.

Operation Homefront, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping military service members and their families, matched service members across the nation with the entire 2010 USA Olympic men's hockey team. It was a rare opportunity for the Soldiers to personally encourage Team USA as they battled it out in the Vancouver Winter Olympics. "Operation Homefront began supporting Team USA Hockey for one reason -- to help the players understand they're not playing for the Stanley Cup, but their country," Carly Samuelson, Operation Homefront director of development and special events, told in a recent interview.

Each Soldier sent their adopted player a letter of encouragement and many sent small gifts to give the player good luck in Vancouver. Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Gray, WTB platoon sergeant, chose to send a cross his niece gave him before he deployed to Iraq. “I call her my little angel so when she gave me the cross she said a little angel wore it,” said Gray. In his letter to Tim Thomas, goaltender for the Boston Bruins, Gray wrote, “This cross brought me home alive and I think it gave me good luck, I hope it does the same for you.”

Wawruck presented a gift to Suter in person after the Predators and the Colorado Avalanche invited the Soldiers to meet adopted players from both teams when they faced off Feb. 4 in Nashville. “This is the patron saint of travelers. I was a truck driver for the Army and this kept me safe through a lot of convoys and blasts,” Wawruck told Suter as he pressed his Saint Christopher’s Medallion into Suter's hand when they met.

Because his adopted player would not be in the area at the same time, Gray escorted the other two Soldiers. A self-professed huge Bruins fan originally from Worcester, Mass., Gray said was just happy to have the opportunity to adopt the man he called “the best goalie in the NHL.” His wife, also a Veteran, was very excited for him. "She knows how much this means to me," said Gray. When Predators staff offered the Soldiers and their families seats for the game that night, Gray's face lit up. He couldn't wait to talk his wife, who is pregnant with their third child, into coming to her first hockey game.

Spc. Aaron Ritter, a Soldier assigned to the WTB, found common ground when he met his adopted player, Colorado Avalanche forward Paul Stastny. In addition to sharing a birth year, the 24-year old Soldier and Olympic hockey player discovered they shared the same favorite player, recently retired Avalanche center Joe Sakic. Ritter, who grew up in Colorado, told Stastny he watched the Sakic and the Avalanche take home the Stanley Cup in 1996, their first year in the National Hockey League. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said with a grin.

Suter and Stastny presented their adopting Soldiers with an autographed photo, hockey stick and heartfelt thanks. The similarity between Soldiers and Olympic players representing the United States was not lost on either player. “This is an honor, these guys go to battle for us every day and we are proud to wear the U.S. hockey sweater for our country,” said Suter. Stastny added that it was amazing to not only represent the country in the Olympics, but to also to be adopted by Soldiers who represent the U.S. everyday. “I just hope we can do well and bring back a medal,” Stastny said.

Bring back a medal they did. Team USA can hold their heads high after winning five victories leading up to the final championship game against Canada Sunday and taking home the silver medal. The U.S. ice hockey players used the encouragement they received from U.S. Army Soldiers like Gray, Wawruck and Ritter to make the final game of the Olympics one for the history books. That encouragement, and maybe a little luck from an angel's cross and a truck driver's patron saint, helped fulfill Stastny’s hope of bringing back a medal.

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