DETROIT — With an injury list that would dwarf any NHL team, the Michigan Warriors took to the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
With 25 skaters and two goalies, the Warriors — a group of disabled U.S. military veterans — suited up to play an inter-squad pick-up game of hockey on Sunday morning.
“We have a few guys that stepped on land mines,” Josh Krajewski said. “They stepped on IEDs on the side of the road. One of our goalies, Joe Baker, stepped on one and his whole leg is shattered but he still comes out and plays. He’s in a little bit of pain still but he’s gone through many surgeries to get better. We have guys that have traumatic brain injuries and then there’s other stuff like hearing loss. Any disability that’s rated by the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital system or anybody that has a Purple Heart from serving overseas is welcome to come play in the program.”
Krajewski, 28, founded the Michigan Warriors program shortly after he began playing hockey just two years ago. After suffering a back injury while working as a civilian contractor in Iraq, Krajewski’s physical therapist suggested he get into some form of physical activity to help with the rehabilitation process. Growing up a fan of the sport but never having actually played it, Krajewski decided to pick up the game of hockey and instantly fell in love.
“It helped me physically right off the bat,” he said. “Then I got the idea that there’s tons and tons of other disabled veterans in the state that might not have the opportunity to get off the couch and do it on their own. So I thought to myself ‘why is there no program for disabled veteran hockey? There should be one.’”
Krajewski immediately began contacting local hockey rinks, veteran service organizations, colleges and businesses to reach out to disabled veterans. It didn’t matter to him whether other veterans had prior experience on the ice or not, it was simply an opportunity to re-integrate themselves back into civilian life.
“One of the things you miss when you get out of the military is that camaraderie,” David Denhardt said. “The brotherhood, the feeling that you’ve got somebody that’s got your back no matter what.”
The Michigan Warriors club gave that feeling back to Denhardt, 44, who served in the Marine Corps for four years. The locker room atmosphere in a competitive environment brings these former military members together in a constructive way.
Denhardt played hockey from the age of five, but after suffering extensive injuries during his time in service, he didn’t think he would ever be able to skate again.
“I was in the vicinity of a rocket that exploded,” he said. “I was thrown about 90 feet through the air and slammed into a shipping container. I hit on my left side. I have nerve damage to most of my left side. I’ve had four surgeries already. My nerves are dead in my inner ear so I have no balance. I have traumatic brain injury, PTSD, fibromyalgia, severe migraines and issues with my right leg.”
With Krajewski’s efforts to put a team together, Denhardt felt this was a chance to get back into the sport that he had loved for so long.
“It’s been amazing just being able to be out of the house and be physically active,” Denhardt said. “Being able to be independent and having some kind of physical activity that I didn’t think was possible.”
Based out of Royal Oak, Michigan, the Warriors skate once a week, playing three games and one practice each month. Members range in ages from 24 to 44 and come from nearby areas like Shelby Township, St. Clair Shores and Ann Arbor. Thanks to equipment and monetary donations from the community, participation is free for disabled veterans.
“Our next 12-month plan is to start more teams in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids,” Krajewski said. “We want to expand throughout the state and almost create a pseudo-type league of veteran hockey.”
Donations and information on the Michigan Warriors hockey club can be found on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MichiganWarriorsHockey.