Soldiers play hockey with heart

Story by Jennifer Caprioli, for Soldiers magazine

Fort Drum is nestled between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Mountains — a winter paradise for those who find solace on ice and snow. The installation is a mere 30 miles from Canada, and one of the biggest draws to the region is ice hockey.

While there are various hockey leagues in the “North Country,” for players to choose from, there was never one that appealed to the challenges of being a Soldier, until recently.

Largely composed of Soldiers from across the installation, the Mountaineer Hockey Club was officially recognized as a private nonprofit organization on Fort Drum in June 2010. It is a club “by the Soldier, for the Soldier.”

Looking to establish a connection between the community and the military, Capt. James Rowley, ordnance officer with 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, is credited with launching the organization.

“Getting Soldiers out of the barracks … to do some team building in their off time was a reason for starting the organization,” he said. “I found it to be a golden opportunity for Soldiers who have played the game to connect with their peers.”

Because of deployments and frequent Soldier rotations, the club’s lineup numbers fluctuate from practice to practice – a turnover understood only by fellow Soldiers. On any given day, the club can have up to 35 players on its roster. On other days, there are barely enough skaters to field a complete team.

“For the first two years we were playing, we could barely scrape (up) enough guys to cover the cost of the ice,” explained Staff Sgt. Tim Doherty, club co-captain assigned to 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. “This year, there (are players) crawling out of the woodwork.”

While the practices appeal to the Soldiers’ schedules, and the camaraderie on the ice is similar to the Soldiers’ day-to-day Army life, the team’s popularity also might have something to do with a venture they took on last season.

In the past year, through a handful of benefit games, the Mountaineers Hockey Club has raised more than $2,400 for organizations such as the USO Fort Drum, the Wounded Warrior Project and Defending the Blue Line (a Minnesota-based organization designed to ensure that children of military members are afforded every opportunity to play hockey).

As luck would have it, when the Mountaineers were just getting their footing, a local minor professional hockey team, the Thousand Islands Privateers, announced in 2009 that its players would be sharpening their skates for the team’s official launch.

The Mountaineers and Privateers went head to head during a February 2010 game. To make things interesting, they switched goalies. The result was a tight game, with the Privateers beating the Mountaineers, 15-14.

The friendly exhibition game helped raise more than $300 for the USO Fort Drum.

During the summer of 2011, Spc. Johnny Laursen, co-captain with 2nd Battalion, 14th Inf. Regt., 2nd BCT, reached out to the Philadelphia police department hockey team, asking them to make the five-hour trek up to central New York to play a benefit game against the Mountaineers. The team agreed, and the game raised more than $1,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Every dollar collected went directly to the organization, Doherty explained, adding that the cost to rent the rink for that game came out of the players’ pockets. However, sometimes the rink staff will donate ice time or offer the team a discount.

After the summer charity game, Laursen said they realized how easy it was to set up benefit games with other teams to raise money for charities. In December, for example, the club played a double-header in Syracuse to benefit the Defending the Blue Line organization. The Mountaineers versus the Syracuse Police Department game opened for the Syracuse Crunch versus the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins game. The games raised more than $600 for Defending the Blue Line.

“We don’t make money off (our efforts). We just want to play,” Doherty said. “We (pay for) everything out of pocket and for sheer love of the game.”

It isn’t always easy for the players to balance hockey and soldiering – that love of the game sometimes comes with a little extra effort.

Players practice for about 90 minutes on Monday evenings at a recreation center about 30 miles north of Fort Drum. It’s a big commitment for the players, Doherty explained, because they don’t hit the ice until 8:30 p.m., and practices can be lengthy. Most of the Soldiers don’t hit the sack until midnight, and they still wake up for physical training early the next morning.

The players admit that between late-night practices and hours of travel to and from games, it’s a grueling schedule. But they all agree it’s worth it to be able to do what they love.

While most of the players grew up playing hockey, for some like Staff Sgt. Kannon Smart the sport is a newfound love.

Smart, a Soldier with 4th Bn., 31st Inf. Regt., 2nd BCT, took an interest in ice hockey three years ago while stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. When he received orders to Fort Drum, he expected he would continue playing in an adult league, but never expected be playing on a club composed completely of military-affiliated players.

“When I (moved) here and found something like this (club), I realized it was such a great opportunity. I’m passionate about (playing hockey), and I really don’t care how well I play. I just love to play,” he said.

Smart’s fellow Soldiers agree that it’s all about the chance to face off and burn off a little steam. The Mountaineers welcome players of all skill levels.

“It works out well, because the experienced guys help out the (less experienced) guys,” Laursen said.

“Everybody gets to play. Everybody gets to have fun,” Doherty added. “That’s what it boils down to … having fun and playing hockey.”

Other players were happy for a chance to lace up their skates again.

“(Having a club) gets me back on the ice. Before I started playing here, I hadn’t been on the ice in two years,” said Spc. Dan Perdue, a Soldier from 2nd Bn., 10th Aviation Regt., 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. “It’s all about the love of the game, no matter how good you are.”

Rowley explained that he used the time on the ice to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from a deployment in 2005.

And playing for a cause makes the love of the game that much sweeter, the players admit.

“We just play to play,” Laursen added. “If we can use what we do to help other people out, then there’s no reason not (to play).”

To view updates about the Mountaineers, visit the team’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MountaineersHockey.

Jennifer Caprioli is a staff writer for the Fort Drum Mountaineer.