Following their practice at SAP Arena the Sabres boarded a bus for a one-hour ride to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a Level 1 Trauma Center that primarily treats soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Opened in 1953, the 146-bed facility is the largest American hospital outside the United States.
For two incredibly humbling – and inspiring – hours, the players broke into several groups to tour the hospitals wards, along with the USO Wounded Warrior Center. The majority of my day was spent with a group consisting of Tyler Myers
, Jochen Hecht
, Tyler Ennis
, Andrej Sekera
and Jhonas Enroth
. Together they represent five different countries (Myers is a dual Canadian/US citizen), while also being the five quietist Sabres you could possibly assemble. They are known for letting their actions speak on the ice, but not as loudly off it.
But on this day it didn’t matter how much they said or how loudly they said it. The Buffalo Sabres were a distraction, not the focus of attention.
Just their mere presence in each room was enough for these soldiers, many of whom who had no idea who they even were. To them, Myers was just some tall kid in the blue number 57 jersey. Ennis rode shotgun with Myers all day, his wavy blond hair covered up by a baseball cap. Enroth looked more like someone who had snuck into the tour, as his oversized goalie jersey tented his slight frame. Just like he is on the ice, Sekera stayed in the background for most of the day, but stepped up when the situation called for it. Hecht, the elder statesman of the group, often interjected when patients or staff had questions about hockey in Germany. He even took offense when a nurse suggested that we avoid that Autobahn during our trip. “What have you got against the Autobahn?” Hecht deadpanned, before breaking into a smile.
“Do you like hockey?” was a commonly used icebreaker question as the players entered a room, and more often than not it was Ennis starting the conversation. Each player carried hats, pucks and pictures to autograph, leaving them behind with each person they encountered – be it patients or staff. After presenting hats to five nurses, one woman yelled out “nice to meet y’all!” She admitted to me seconds later that she’d never watched a hockey game in her life, but will now cheer for the Sabres because “y’all have just been so nice to everyone today.”
As the day wore on, the players seemed to become more comfortable with not only their surroundings, but their role in this visit. As one patient put it, having the players take time out to visit them was “just the morale boost I needed today.” This seemed to loosen the group up, and the ensuing conversations became more natural and free flowing.
Their demeanor changed too. Myers would often stand back and let Ennis take the lead in each room. But during one visit when they approached a patient in an already crowded room, the 6-foot-8 Myers stuck his head above the crowd and waved at the wounded soldier sitting up in his bed across the room. A smile instantly came across his face, and he giggled at Myers, the tall kid in the hockey jersey waving at him from the doorway.
In some cases, the five shy players were even grilled by some loquacious patients worse than the media following a tough loss. “You guys ready for the season?” asked Patrick Hawco of the Marine Corps, sitting up slightly as a cast enveloped his leg. “You have been a consistent playoff team for a lot of years, is that gonna change?” The group laughed collectively, and Myers nervously answered, “Well … we really want the season to start. I think we’re gonna be good.”
Even the patients who don’t follow hockey weren’t afraid to call out the players. When the group walked into his room, a beaming Eric Tsosie looked up and asked “So what do you guys do?” A native of New Mexico, Tsosie proceeded to ask who the best players in the room were. “Well, Ennis is the best scorer in the room,” said Myers. Tsosie said he didn’t know much about hockey, then turned his laptop around to reveal the Sabres.com homepage, saying that he had been “researching stats” to check up on who might be coming in to see him. “It’s not like I have anything else to do right now,” he laughed.
Upon leaving each room, the players would all take turns shaking hands with the soldiers, while offering them thanks for their service. Prior to leaving Hawco’s room, he looked around at each player and thanked them for coming to visit him. “This has been awesome,” Hawco said. “I even got to meet Ryan Miller
. He’s my hero.”
On his way out of the room, Sekera approached Hawco, shook his hand and said “Thank you sir for everything you’ve done for the country. We very much appreciate it.”
On this day, Andrej Sekera
and the rest of the Buffalo Sabres had an opportunity to thank the real heroes.