Hockey And The Army
Before I jump into my Army experiences, I’ll just give a little background about my hockey experience. I began playing hockey at the age of four on a pond on our farm in New Jersey. Just one year later when I began playing organized hockey, the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup and I was hooked for life. While I don’t have many vivid memories of watching the series, I do remember bragging about it in school the next day to all the Devils fans, and every year I watch the Rangers ’94 playoff video before the playoffs begin. I continued to play organized hockey until high school. During my freshman year, the ice rink shut down and the next closest rink was over an hour away so I did not play organized hockey again until College. However, I continued to play on the pond and watched the Rangers through the dark years and back into the light. In 2008 I began attending Wheaton College, where I played Club Hockey for all four years.
My fascination with the Army began at a young age while watching Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” While this may sound strange, the opening scene, where Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) pulls Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) out from under a collapsing wall, stuck with me and I constantly re-enacted the scene in my house. Later, my brother-in-law attended West Point and became an armor officer and gave me a little more insight into the Army world. After 9/11 happened, my desire to join the Army only increased, and while I had different career interests throughout high school, I always kept coming back to the Army.
I studied at Wheaton College (IL) for my undergrad where I majored in History, did four years of ROTC, in addition to playing Hockey. In May of 2012, I graduated and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant (Armor Branch) in the United States Army. Since then, I have served as a Tank Platoon Leader, a Tank Company Executive Officer, a Headquarters Company Executive Officer, and currently Brigade Future Operations Officer. I have also completed the Maneuver Captains Career Course and finished my first Master’s Degree.
Sports and Army Connection: Competition
In addition to being a soldier, I am also a HUGE sports fan. For me, it is only natural that sports and the Army go together. There are so many parallels between a sports team and the Army, particularly with combat arms soldiers. Both professions are in the business of competition. As competitors, the goal must always be to win. I absolutely love being able to put myself and my team up against competition and coming out victorious. I almost hate losing more than I enjoy winning and both of these professions help to satisfy that competitive desire. George C. Scott hits the nail on the head in Patton (1970).
While you can debate the accuracy of some of those statements, the sentiment rings true for me. Whether attempting to kill a penalty or out-maneuver the enemy, the desire to win drives me and the thought of losing motivates me to give 100% all of the time.
Another obvious similarity between sports and the Army is the teamwork aspect. In Patton (clearly I enjoy this movie) Scott said: “The Army is a Team.” Every person has a different job to do to. However, each job is supporting the overall goal of accomplishing the objective, whether it be winning the Stanley Cup or fighting, winning, and bringing everyone home safe. In hockey, there are coaches, trainers, goalies, defenseman, forwards, and even different specialties amongst those groups. In the Army, we have logisticians, communications specialists, linguists, combat arms and countless other enabling branches and specialties. Each has vastly different duty descriptions, but all have the same goal. In the same way that a hockey team cannot win with all forwards or all goalies, the Army cannot succeed with just combat arms personnel. Each team needs every position or branch to do their specific jobs to the best of their ability, 100% of the time in order to have the best shot at winning.
Type A Mindset
Finally, the last major similarity that I will touch on, is the mindset of both hockey players and soldiers, specifically, combat arms soldiers. The overwhelming majority of soldiers and athletes are type-A personalities, who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. In hockey, this means throwing the body, blocking shots, winning the battles in the corners, and going 100% all the time and never taking a shift off. In the Army, this means getting little to no sleep over the course of a few days and being told that there’s a new mission or objective and moving out right away to accomplish the mission. It means putting the mission ahead of yourself. While the consequences are obviously different, the mindset is generally the same. You have to have both mental and physical toughness, as well as grit (did I just spook some people?), in order to win in such competitive environments.
Serving in the Army is a great honor and one that I take great pride in. However, serving in the Army comes with a number of unique challenges. Soldiers can be deployed for up to 18 months at a time with limited contact with friends and family members. Even when not deployed to combat zones, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, soldiers are still in field training for months at a time, eating terrible food, and “sleeping” on the ground or on their vehicle. I have been “lucky” to “only” spend 15 out of the 48 months that I have been “on the line”, in a deployed or field training environment. It is not uncommon for a soldier to spend a year deployed, come back for a year, and then deploy again for another year.
As I mentioned above, serving in the military can be quite tough. However, soldiers are extremely resilient and will always make the best of a crappy situation. Whether it is playing spades on an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) box, reading a book on a cot, or playing football in the desert, soldiers will always find a way to make the best of a situation. Just take a look at this resiliency.
Sports as an Escape
One of the most popular ways to pass the time and escape the situation is through sports. Soldiers, and in particular combat arms soldiers, are extremely competitive by nature. Sports provide a natural outlet to pass the time and relieve stress and tension.
My first sports story in the Army came on the day after I was commissioned. At this point, I was not deployed or even really in the Army yet. However, I had just finished college and was in the process of transitioning into the “real Army”. The Rangers were playing the Capitals in the Conference Semi-Finals in 2012. The series was tied 2-2, with Game 5 at Madison Square Garden and I was watching from my college living room in my Army Service Uniform (I forget the reason why I was in uniform). Late in the game, the Rangers trailed 2-1 when Joel Ward took a double minor penalty and the Rangers went on the power play. I turned to my dad and brother and said, “We’re going to score here, tie it on the first minor, then win it in OT on the second minor.” You know what happened next. Michael Del Zotto put the puck on net, Ryan Callahan attempted to whack it past Braden Holtby, unsuccessfully, and then Brad Richards buried the puck, sending the Garden into euphoria. Then early in the first overtime, Marc Staal blasted a shot past Braden Holtby on the second minor penalty and the Garden erupted again, giving the Rangers a 3-2 series lead. For my first day in the Army, I thought it was a pretty good one.
In May of 2014, my battalion went to train for a month and a half at Camp Shelby, MS. If you’ve never been to Camp Shelby, MS…don’t go. It is a small installation in the middle of nowhere. Most of the barracks and facilities seemed like they were out of a WWII movie set. During this time, I was working as a battalion battle captain. While being a battle captain may sound cool, I can assure you, it is not. For the most part, you are in charge of running the battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC) when the Commander, Executive Officer, or Operations Officer is away. As a young Lieutenant, this can be quite daunting, especially when one of the above comes in and wants to know why the TOC is all “messed up” (I can assure you that the language is not that dull) and tells you what will happen if you don’t “fix yourself”. However, it is not always that “exciting”. In fact a large portion of the time it is quite boring so we were always looking for ways to pass the time. As the night battle captain, I was on shift while all of the Rangers vs Kings games were on and so I, in my infinite wisdom as a young Lieutenant, decided to pull up the game on NHL Gamecenter and watch it while “doing my work.”
Early in Game 1, the Rangers came out flying and for a while, it seemed that the Rangers speed was going to beat the Kings size. Benoit Pouliot blocked a shot in the defensive zone and was off to the races, beating Jonathan Quick over his shoulder to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. I jumped up and fist pumped in the TOC. At that moment the Battalion Commander appeared behind me and asked me what I was doing. I didn’t even try to pretend that I was doing work because I was so amped up. He didn’t say anything and just walked away shaking his head (I would hear about it later).
I continued watching and was able to see Carl Hagelin blow past the LA defense to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. After that, the internet connection got so bad that I was unable to watch anymore. I guess that was for the better, now that I know the outcome. Throughout the remainder of the series, I continued to monitor from my phone when I had the chance. And even though the results were disappointing, I still looked forward each night to getting to “see” the Rangers in the Cup.
Later that year, in October of 2014, I was at Fort Polk, Louisiana for a JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) training rotation. Similar to Camp Shelby, the bivouac area for rotational units were old, hangar style bays with a couple hundred personnel to each bay. However, only a small portion of our time was spent in the bays, as the majority was spent living outside, off of our vehicles. As with most of my time spent in the field, I had extremely limited access to the outside world. However, I did have my phone and used it to stay up to date with the sports world.
After approximately 14 days of field time with no showers, 100-degree heat, high humidity, dust clouds that could rival any, and next to zero sleep, my company was conducting our final mission before going back to the bivouac area. During the operation, our company had to travel approximately 20km to get to the objective. At the time of movement, the Rangers were playing (I don’t remember who) and I was able to get a stream (amazingly) off of my phone. So I jerry-rigged my phone to the control panel so that I could follow the game while conducting the operation. Looking back, it probably was not the smartest idea; however, I was able to watch the game while traveling through “enemy territory”. During the movement, I can remember that we made contact with an “enemy” truck and we began engaging them with our machine guns (laser system, not real bullets) and as we “hit” them and their “whoopee light” (light indicator showing that your vehicle has been hit) went off, the Rangers scored and the goal light went off at the same time. It was a beautiful orchestra of chaos, the Rangers goal song, all the lights flashing, the sound of the machine guns and simulators going off. It was a perfect beginning to the end of the field exercise.
Finally, the last story I will share about the watching the Rangers in a field setting takes place over two separate seasons and encompassed approximately 30 games. In 2015, our Brigade was deployed to Europe as part of a NATO mission to continue strengthening our relationships with our NATO partners. As part of this deployment, we were spread across eastern and central Europe. Most of these locations (Germany being somewhat of an exception) had limited to zero connectivity, whether it was through the internet or cell phone. For approximately 40 days I had no contact with the outside world (except through a care package that I received on the last day). Prior to leaving, the Rangers had a record of 3-2, losing two in a row to Winnipeg and Montreal. When I returned the Rangers had a record of 14-2-2. The Rangers did not lose a single game in regulation while I was gone. It made the lack of sleep, lack of shower, lack of outside contact, and MREs seem like a worthwhile price to pay (almost). After I showered for the first time in 2.5 weeks, changed clothes and ate some delicious British (we were training with a number of European countries) food, I checked my phone and saw that the Rangers lost, 2-1, to Tampa Bay. I almost walked back out into the field.
Earlier this month I returned from another training rotation in the California desert where I had limited to zero access to the outside world for over a month. Prior to leaving, the Rangers struggled to open the season, going 5-7-2. However, during the month that I was completely out of touch with the Rangers, the Blueshirts went 9-3 and have continued to climb back into the Metropolitan Division standings. Clearly, what I am trying to say here, is that if you want the Rangers to win, just send me to the field without connectivity for a while, although I guess that didn’t really work in 2014.
The military lifestyle can be extremely rewarding, while also being extremely challenging for soldiers’ personal lives. Constantly being away from home can be extremely taxing on both the soldier and their loved ones. The living conditions and lack of amenities can be quite a downer at times. However, sports and for me, the Rangers, are one outlet for escaping to a better place. Sports help you forget where you are for a little while. Even if you can’t actually watch the games and have to wait five minutes for Bleacher Report to load, it is worth it when that notification finally pops up and you see “PP GOAL, Kreider (5), Rangers take a 3-2 lead with 5:32 left in the third.”