Navy SEALs, NHL All-Stars, Paralympians, and More Face Off in One-Night-Only Memorial Game

September 17, 2021Jayme Pastoric
NHL NSW hockey game

Joseph Woodke maneuvers on the ice during the 2021 Memorial Sled Hockey Game. Woodke is a retired Marine and a forward on the 2021 US Paralympic hockey team. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

One night every year, an elite group of athletes gathers on the East Coast for an exclusive hockey game. No tickets are sold. Players participate by invitation only. In the heart of Virginia Beach, Virginia, the worlds of Naval Special Warfare and the National Hockey League collide. 

The game is billed as a winner-takes-all-bragging-rights event supporting the sport of hockey, the military community, and the Warrior For Life Fund (WFLF), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting active-duty members, veterans, and their families as they traverse the challenges of combat service and life after it.

WFLF Director Ryan Croley, a retired Navy SEAL and hockey coach, started the tradition in 2012 after returning from his 11th deployment.

Boston Bruins alumni Kevan Miller, foreground, and Mark Mowers, left, participate alongside Warrior For Life Fund Director Ryan Croley during the 2021 Memorial Sled Hockey Game. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

“I wanted to memorialize and remember our teammates and honor our Gold Star families in an activity that challenges players to be the best athletes they can be,” Croley said. “During play and at the dinner after the game, it’s common for us to say their names and toast their service. Hockey brings us together, but it’s more than just a game.”

Born from the game, WFLF seeks to expand existing hockey and sled hockey programs that support the military community of the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area while developing a team atmosphere and a positive environment for mentors and athletes who want to learn to play hockey.

Since 2012, the WFLF has grown from sharing the ice with teammates and family to an outreach program to connect veterans with the civilian community and create relationships. WFLF events, large and small, are intended to help people connect, one person at a time.

Active-duty and retired members of Naval Special Warfare and the veteran community are invited to play in the annual game. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

Formerly a grocery store, the Iceland Family Skating Center hosted this year’s game on July 31. It’s a rink where kids cut their teeth and learn fundamentals in early morning skate sessions and afternoon pickup games. For many, the rink is a spiritual place. Its walls are full of championship banners, and its trophy case is too full to display all its hardware properly. It’s a family run establishment where mom manages the scoreboard and her son is the Zamboni driver. It’s a place where hockey players are born and champions return to teach the newest generation the game.

At this year’s memorial game, the rink wasn’t reserved for just SEALs and NHL players. The peewee and over-30 hockey leagues shared the ice with members of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community, NHL players from the Boston Bruins, gold medalists from the US Paralympic sled hockey team, and amateur players. Parents faced off against their children. First-year players skated alongside NHL all-stars, active and retired military members, and Paralympic champions. The youngest player was 12, the oldest was over 60.  

NHL NSW hockey game
Family members of all ages watch the action up close on the ice. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

WFLF has a unique bond with the Boston Bruins and the US Paralympic sled hockey team, and alumni from those organizations often skate in the annual memorial match. 

This year, Bruins alumni Mark Mowers, Kevan Miller, and Frank Simonetti suited up for the cause. Rounding out the roster of professionals were US Marine Corps veterans and US Paralympic hockey team members Joseph Woodke and Travis Dodson. 

After his combat injury in 2007, Dodson competed in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games in cross-country skiing and biathlon before transitioning to sled hockey.  

“It doesn’t matter who does what,” Dobson said. “If you score the goal or get the assist, you help the team win. That’s the same way it was in the military. It wasn’t about who did what. It was about what we accomplished.”

NHL NSW hockey game
Travis Dodson fights off a defender during the 2021 Memorial Sled Hockey Game. Dodson is a retired Marine and a 2018 Paralympic hockey gold medalist. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

Croley has spent years mentoring and teaching hockey to anyone who wants to learn. 

“Hockey players and veterans have uniquely similar interests, and hockey provides a therapeutic activity for many of us,” Croley said. “I was moved to see Kevan Miller — one of the most intimidating and talented players in the NHL — playing with a 12-year-old young lady as his line mate. And Mark Mowers played alongside one of our Gold Star kids who had just learned the game.” 

Simonetti, a longtime supporter of the WFLF, said he’s amazed by how much the two communities share on and off the ice. 

Members of the Naval Special Warfare community battle for a loose puck. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

“There’s a lot of commonality and personality traits between elite members of Naval Special Warfare and elite athletes,” Simonetti said. “When I came down here for the first memorial game and walked into the locker room, the atmosphere was the same as the NHL. We instantly connected.”

Amid a familial atmosphere, old friends reunited for the first time in years or since returning from deployment. As warmups finished, a NSW player skated to the volunteer referees standing at center ice and thanked them for coming out. Then he told them, endearingly, they sucked. “We know,” they replied, laughing.  

As the puck dropped, the atmosphere changed. Smiles turned to game faces, levity to intensity. Shots on goals were precise, but few made it past the goaltender. Skating up and down the ice, players were united by a love of the game, team camaraderie, and a common goal.

NHL NSW hockey game
Hockey skills are tested as two members of the veteran community fight for position after a change of possession. Photo by Jayme Pastoric.

Chad Cross, a former University of Michigan hockey player and member of the NSW community, has laced up his skates for the last three games.

“It’s an honor to play for those who have come before us and for those who are still in the fight.” Cross said. “It’s amazing to see how much the event has grown over the past few years.”

As the scoreboard ticked down to triple zero and the final horn echoed through the rink, players unstrapped helmets, and game faces gave way to smiles. They gathered at center ice to shake hands, talk about missed goals, and congratulate the first-year players on their baptism into the sport. As they departed, the players waved goodbye and made promises to see one another at next year’s game.

One of the last NSW players stepped off the ice and turned back, yelling to anyone listening, “Next year, we’ll win if I’m not deployed.”

Read Next: A Package Deal: Meth Peanuts, Box Turtles, Parasitic Wasps, and King Cobras

Jayme Pastoric
Jayme Pastoric

Jayme Pastoric is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in photography and a master’s degree in strategic communications. He is eagerly awaiting his DD-214 as he wraps up a career with the Navy as a mass communication specialist. Pastoric has deployed numerous times with Naval Special Operations Forces, including a combat tour in Iraq with SEAL Team Two. He is one of a handful of Department of Defense underwater photographers and is a third-generation military artist. His work has appeared in national and international publications including Time Magazine and National Geographic. He bunkers down in Virginia Beach and prefers coffee with a whisper of heavy cream.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved