On the Sharks last day in Germany, they practiced as a team at one of SAP Arena’s two extra sheets of ice then they split up for a couple of assignments. Half the club signed autographs for local German hockey fans who showed up to watch the open practice.
The other 12 players were honored with the ability to visit injured soldiers at the Kaiserslautern military hospital. The facility, part of a large base, is one of the first stops for those requiring medical attention from front line duty.
Helping the USO provide benefits to the military was the main focus of the day, but the Sharks players were equally as thrilled to meet the soldiers.
“I don’t see why anyone would be excited to meet me, it’s kind of cool,” said injured Lance Corporal Chris Senseney.
Professional hockey players receive the adulations of hundreds of thousands, but San Jose’s representatives knew who the more valuable people in the rooms were.
“People always say that hockey players are warriors, but these guys are the true warriors,” said Joe Thornton
. “We kind of take that word for granted in our sport.”
Driving the hour each way to make the special visits was very inspirational for the Sharks contingent and they came away with a higher degree of respect for those who look out for others.
“It opens your eyes a lot, puts things in perspective and makes you realize not to take anything for granted,” said Scott Nichol. “It’s good to know those guys are protecting us and (people should know) they are giving their bodies and their lives to do it.”
“They love when people come in and support them and obviously we do (support them),” said Thornton. “They have the toughest job in the world keeping our country safe and other countries safe. It is nice that we can show our appreciation when we are over here and tell them thanks and boost their morale as well. It was a great thing to do today.”
“It was eye-opening and certainly makes you appreciate what you have back home in the states,” said Jamal Mayers. “You really get to appreciate the sacrifices these guys make.”
An area of conversation that impressed the Sharks players was the simple desire of the soldiers to return to action so they could assist their units.
“The first thought in their mind is how are my guys doing back in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Nichol.
“You can’t compare the two,” said Jamal Mayers about playing hurt in hockey and fighting in combat while hurt. “They’ve got such an unbelievable pride and fighting spirit. They are close knit groups and they are putting their lives on the line for their country and to hear the first thing they think about is getting back out there is remarkable. It is a testament to the type of guys they are, they are the true heroes.”
One of the injured soldiers was Lance Corporal Michael Allen from Fresno and he received an offer to watch the Sharks at HP Pavilion when he returned home.
“I’ll probably grab my buddy and head up there,” said Allen. “I love watching hockey games.”
Allen noted that considering he has been in the Middle East, a hockey game was a great suggestion.
“After being in 140 degree temperatures, it will be nice going somewhere where it is cold,” said Allen, who similar to the other soldiers dealing with adversity, still had a positive outlook.
He didn’t profess to being a hockey expert, but Allen did enjoy the Fresno Falcons while growing up.
“I’m in the Marine Corps so any contact sport is cool in my book,” said Allen.
Hockey players are acknowledged as being among the toughest athletes in the world, but their pain is nothing compared to what the soldiers must endure, both physically and emotionally.
“It’s a good experience (for us) and it brings things in perspective and it makes your aches and pains at the start of the season not as bad,” said Mayers. “It gives you a good appreciation for things going on in the world.”
“There won’t be any complaining from us any more after seeing what these guys deal with every day,” said Nichol.
That is not to say that there can’t be some acknowledgment of what happens in the Sharks world.
“I’m sure getting hammered into the boards still hurts pretty bad,” said Senseney.
Hockey is big on the base as there is a team that plays adult league games around the region and those players, fortunately all healthy, also had the opportunity to meet the Sharks.
“Just the fact they come out here to see everybody is nice,” said Steve Cotta, who spent a lot of time growing up in Willow Glen and is part of the base’s hockey fraternity.
The Sharks focus will return to opening their season with a practice in Stockholm on Tuesday, but the impressions made by the military hospital visit will be with them for the rest of their lives.