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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”