The first time Zac Von Czoernig and Randy O’Mahoney met it was during a center-ice collision in a game between Von Czoernig’s Tri-State Selects and O’Mahoney’s Philadelphia Jr. Patriots.
Yet here they were again, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a 15-passenger van heading south on I-95 on the first leg of what would be an eight-day, 1,200-mile mission of mercy.
As the miles rolled along, the teenage hockey players discovered that not only would they be teammates this upcoming season with the Jr. Patriots organization, but they also actually liked each other.
Like Von Czoernig and O’Mahoney, when the other members of the Continental Hockey Association gathered with their belongings in the parking lot of the Power Play Rink in Exton, Pa., they were strangers. By the end of a long week that pushed them to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion, they returned home as close friends and changed people.
Being a Junior hockey player in and of itself is all about sacrifices that many people outside of the sport don’t understand. The long bus trips, early morning wake-up calls and taxing practices are all character builders for those looking to take the next step. This type of dedication leads them to empty rinks during the summer where they work hard on and off the ice to prepare for the upcoming season.
For one week in late June, that training was put on hold when one group of Junior hockey players from the CHA traded in their hockey sticks for hammers to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
They arrived in the parking lot of a suburban Philadelphia rink eager to lend a hand to the humanitarian mission, but unaware of the monumental task that lay ahead.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to be. I don’t hear about it on the news anymore; it can’t be that bad. But if it is, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised,” admitted O’Mahoney.
Connected by a common cause, the players piled into the van ready for the long haul. Despite the hours on the road, cramped quarters and stifling heat, the attitudes were remarkably upbeat.
Although most had never met, they quickly struck up conversations of the past season, common teammates and rivals and the season yet to come. Some discovered that they would soon be wearing the same colors, and talked about their goals for the new year.
“We’re on different teams in the league,” said Matt Nielsen of the Virginia Express. “But really we’re all hockey players and we all share a common goal and a common love for the sport. I think it’s great we’re all [spending] time together.”
By the time the traveling party rolled into Biloxi, Miss., early on a Sunday evening they had had enough of the road. As they poured out of the van, unfolding and uncoiling cramped limbs, they were smacked in the face with the blanket of humidity that covers the Gulf Coast region during the summer months. They were also hit by the startling realization that there was still much work to be done two years after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.
After a night of sleep in air-conditioned bunkhouses, the group joined forces with Habitat for Humanity to receive their marching orders for the week. Most of the players thought that they would be responsible for painting and maybe some gardening. They were wrong. Their week would be spent rebuilding a house for one of many displaced families in the area.
Over the years, Habitat for Humanity has done more than just rebuild homes; it has helped to rebuild the lives and lift the spirits of people all over the region.
“I really think there needs to be sort of hope and happiness back in the area here,” said Chris Hansen, a Habitat site supervisor. “A lot of people are still sad and kind of beat up and depressed from the whole storm. Just the presence of the neighborhoods and the houses helps quite a bit with the morale here.”
The project started from the ground and worked its way up. Arriving at the job site, all that was in place were cinderblock pilings. The rest would be up to the players and a handful of Habitat workers.
The workdays were long and extremely hot. No hockey practice could prepare the players for the grueling task of working outdoors in Mississippi in the middle of summer. Through it all, everyone remained positive and upbeat.
“It’s just great helping people down there. Just seeing the destruction makes you want to do more, help more, build more houses. Anything you can do to help these people,” said Von Czoernig.
By the end of the week, the team had built the foundation, floor and the framework for all the exterior and interior walls of the house.
The amount of work that it took to build half a house put the rebuilding task into perspective. It took nearly 20 people a week just to put up the framework of one house. There were thousands more waiting in the wings.
Local citizens weren’t the only ones who appreciated the effort of the CHA players. In a demonstration of how close the hockey community can be, representatives from the East Coast Hockey League’s Mississippi Sea Wolves came by the work site to visit the crew one afternoon. The team has not been able to play a game in more than two years, and the damage to their arena, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, has just recently been repaired.
Head Coach and General Manager Steffon Walby talked to the players about advancing to the next level in hockey, and acknowledged the importance of their volunteer work.
“There’s not a lot of other sports [whose players] would come and do what you guys are doing down here,” Walby said. “Hockey people are special people, and that’s what separates us from all the other major sports. Be proud to be involved in the game and proud of what you guys [have done] here.”
The experiences spilled over from the job site and into the nightly “team dinners” at local buffets and southern barbeque joints. There were also side trips to a minor league baseball game, and an evening in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter. Those trips, in addition to the satisfaction that came with helping others were all the rewards these players needed.
As the players crawled back into the cramped quarters of the van and headed for home, they left behind the foundation of a brighter future for one family in need, and took with them something that will last a lifetime.