USA Warriors: “Hockey Was a Life-saver For Me”

Wounded warrior

Doug Johnson of PuckBuddys writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Drew Hill doesn’t sound like a guy whose life needed saving. He’s confident and friendly, with that ingrained Army habit of calling you “Sir,” and he loves talking about hockey. “Chippy,” it turns out, is one of his favorite descriptions for just about everything.

The Warriors pose for a photo after a recent game.

We spoke recently just as he stepped off the ice after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He was tired — “Sorry about being winded, Sir,” he said — but eager to talk about his team of military pals who don skates as often as they can. Whether they have all their limbs or not. After all, they have a big game coming up.

Hill is a member of USA Warriors Ice Hockey, a project of USA Hockey and the NHL, that gets wounded American combat veterans out on the ice, playing hockey, no matter if they’ve ever played before or not.

Hill was one of those who had. “I played off and on through high school and up from there,” he told me. “But when I got into the Army I had to back it off a bit. Then I got hurt in Afghanistan in 2006; I picked it back up. Hockey was a life-saver for me.”

In fighting, Hill’s right ankle was essentially shattered and had to be completely rebuilt. “I’ve got titanium and all kinds of metal down there,” he said. His rehabilitation was long and, as they often are, difficult. “Physical therapy was great, but it just wasn’t aggressive enough. I was still walking with a cane. Well, I strapped on a pair of skates and started skating around, and the therapy I got from being on the ice basically got me working my right leg again.”

Hill’s story is a familiar one to anyone who plays with, or knows of , Warriors Ice Hockey. Composed of wounded vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s part exercise, part amateur league, and part therapy. And this Thursday at 7pm, the puck will drop at Kettler on a big game — the Wounded Warriors vs. the Congressional hockey team.

In this era of unending war, it’s still odd to see vets showing signs of battle. Other than the obligatory standing ovation at a Caps game for a minute or so, members of the military — especially the wounded — can seem separate. Segregated, perhaps, by a country that values their work, but has fraying connection to armed service.

But when the Warriors play, nothing is separate. Every player is on the ice — but only some of the scars are visible.

The players, says team goalie Mike Vaccaro, come in with “the complete range” of injuries. “Double amputees, missing eyes, it’s everything.”

Vaccaro grew up in Buffalo, something of a two-horse town when it comes to sports. “In Buffalo, you either play football or hockey. We went down the hockey road,” he said, as his father worked for the Buffalo Sabres.

“You have to know your unit, you have to know where everyone is, you have to gel. It’s the same with hockey, it’s the same with life.” - Mike Vaccaro

A civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers and a Staff Sgt. with the U.S. Army Reserves, Vaccaro is also currently the coach of the Maryland Sabres, a club which sports teams of Mites, Squirts, Bantams, and any other young ones who want to play. And it turns out, among those who most want to play is Vaccaro.

“After I came back from Iraq in 2006 I was wounded,” he said. “I heard about USA Warrior Hockey and wanted to get involved. I’ve been with it ever since.”

Vaccaro was fortunate — relatively. He took shrapnel to the face, had some damage to his teeth and jaw. Five years on, he’s pretty much healed: people often assume he was never wounded.

But Vaccaro needed something more, so he got involved with the Warriors. Like Hill, when Vaccaro talks about hockey, it’s in near-equal measures of competition and therapy. “Being in the military, they teach you teamwork,” he said. “You have to know your unit, you have to know where everyone is, you have to gel. It’s the same with hockey, it’s the same with life. To me, taking these wounded soldiers and sailors and Marines who’ve never played hockey, and they’re thinking ‘well, I can’t play hockey because of my injuries,’ and making them take that next step — watching them out on the ice, watching their faces, you can see they’re only thinking about hockey. All their wounds, all their financial problems, whatever they have, all that is gone. We’re on the ice, we’re having fun. Just to give them the chance to do that for an hour — it’s worth it.”

The current Army recruiting slogan calls it “Army Strong”: you don’t quit, you don’t ask if you can do something, you just do it. That training, says Vaccaro, is exactly what helps wounded vets struggling with their physical and emotional challenges find the courage to do something as seemingly nuts as strapping on skates and hitting the ice.

“I had some issues when I came back, and hockey has been my therapy,” he said. “Helping these guys, they don’t realize it, but they’re helping me. So it’s a big circle.”

Sgt. Hill has seen it in his own life, and in others. “My good buddy Matt — he was one of those guys stuck in his room, didn’t want to get out. And I am beyond persistent. I was knocking on his door, had tickets, whatever to get him out skating.” One day Matt came to Drew and said: “Drew, if you hadn’t done that and got me out there skating, I’d be dead today. Thank you.”

“I'd rather play with these guys than anyone else in the world.” - Retired Army Staff Sgt. Drew Hill

This Thursday’s game is a fundraiser for the group, but it’s also a chance for some pretty competitive guys to take a shot at winning a game. In the past the Warriors have played a variety of teams, some of them pretty good — undoubtedly better than the Congressional team. And woe be unto the opponent who figures to ‘go easy’ on the Warriors. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is a group of guys who want to play hard.

“I’d rather play with these guys than anyone else in the world,” said Hill, a natural center who plays a variety of spots during a game. “I’m on the ice and I look over to my left and one of my really good friends Mark Little will be there — he’s missing both his limbs below the knee. And at my other side, I’ve got a right leg amputee. And I’m out there and they are the most hilarious guys I’ve ever seen in my life. You know, guys are out there, they get a little chippy and smack ’em on the leg, and they just go ‘What, you think that hurts me? It’s gone.’ It’s just hilarious to see them get out there.”

What’s not been at all hilarious — except, perhaps for the scamps at Wonkette — is the small-minded bickering that pushed President Obama’s address to 7pm Thursday evening, the same time as the Warriors – Congressional match-up. For several days confusion reigned (just as it everywhere else in Washington it seems) about whether the game would happen. Late last week the Warriors decided: they’re too far into this, and they will hit the ice for puck drop at 7. What the members of the Congressional team do is still murky. But if bets had to be placed, you’d get good odds that staffers will replace those members who feel they need to attend the President’s address — and there will be a game.

“A good game,” expects Vaccaro. Hill agrees. “We want to win, so we’ll go a little aggressive,” he said. We heard that these Hill guys are a bit chippy, so we want to see what they’re made of. But you’ve got a bunch of war vets out there, so we’re gonna give them a good fight, but of course enjoy ourselves.”

If you want stale, pie-fight politics, tune in C-SPAN Thursday night. But if you want to see some great hockey, played by an amazing team who’ve earned the title “Warriors” make a date for Kettler.

The USA Warriors Hockey game will take place at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Thursday, September 8 at 7 PM.  Tickets are available at the door. RSVP on Facebook.