When members of the U.S. Olympic Team hit the ice for their opening game against Switzerland at the 2010 Vancouver Games, they carried with them not only the hopes of an entire nation but the ideals of some of its finest heroes.
Fueled by the stories of unity, sacrifice and attitude from a special group of U.S. service members, the upstart Americans came within an overtime goal of shocking the hockey world by employing the same character and grit that is displayed on battlefields and remote military outposts around the world.
The idea of teaming up with Operation Homefront, a non-profit group that provides services to wounded war veterans, was the brainchild of U.S. General Manager Brian Burke, who has a long history of reaching out to the military.
“When I first got the assignment to handle the Olympic Team, I met with Jerry Colangelo who put together the Olympic basketball team and asked him what the components were,” Burke recalled.
“He gave me a checklist and one of the things on the list was tied to the military. So I asked him if the military would be receptive to a [wounded warriors program].”
Burke followed that conversation up by orchestrating an integrated program between the wounded warriors and the U.S. squad that lasted for the duration of the Olympic Winter Games.
It started with a three-day orientation camp, where the U.S. brain trust brought three decorated veterans to talk about what it means to be part of a military unit and fighting not only for yourself but the person next to you in the foxhole.
“They were trying to get the message across that you are a team, whether you have to accomplish a mission or you’re going for a gold medal.”
— Scott Gomez
Army Rangers Joe Dames and Chad Fleming, along with Navy SEAL Michael Thornton, described their military experiences on the battlefield in chilling detail, and how they wouldn’t be here today without the support of those in their respective units.
“They were trying to get the message across that you are a team, whether you have to accomplish a mission or you’re going for a gold medal,” said forward Scott Gomez, who participated in the camp.
“Everyone has to be on the same page. Everyone has to be focused on the goal at hand. There’s going to be stuff that’s going to happen. You have to back each other up.”
Fleming arrived wearing a prosthetic lower limb, the result of one of his tours in Iraq, and talked about how he has since reinvented his life, taking on the role of motivational speaker, starring in a national music video and competing in 5K races.
“Here’s a guy who has served his country honorably,” Burke said. “He [returned to the sand], doing two tours of duty in Iraq with a prosthetic limb. He’s a tough guy.”
The success of that first meeting inspired Burke to carry the program forward, pairing a wounded warrior with each member of the 23-man roster, who received a package that contained a flag, personal letter and personal item from a specific wounded warrior that was teamed up with him. These items were kept in their locker room stalls throughout the Games.
Dames, a former Army captain who was injured in a suicide bombing attack during his last tour in Iraq in 2009, was impressed by how attentive the U.S. players were when they met in Chicago.
“I spoke in front of the team at the team dinner and shared some of the personal details of my story,” Dames recalled. “Even after I was wounded, the mission wasn’t over…we had to continue to fight on that mission.
“[Head coach Ron Wilson] later told me he used my story to motivate the team between periods [in Vancouver]. It inspired the team to push a little bit harder and dig a little bit deeper. Knowing that touched me in a special way. It was great to see a group of Americans out on the ice fighting for our country in their own way.”
Led by Olympic MVP goaltender Ryan Miller, the U.S. Team played inspired hockey throughout the tournament, displaying staunch resolve and a sense of purpose that helped them power through the round-robin portion of the tournament field and into the gold-medal rematch against high-powered hosts and their rabid fans.
Burke credits the message brought by the heroes in uniform for the overachieving performance of his players.
“These guys were one of the driving forces behind our play,” said U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner. “We believed in ourselves, but during the orientation we realized what we were playing for. What it meant to [these soldiers] for us to represent them and play for our country. We felt like we had to lay it on the line. It really hit home for a lot of guys.”
Burke is no stranger when it comes to the military. A dual citizen, he has shown strong support for both the U.S. and Canadian armed forces. In fact, when his Anaheim Ducks team won the Stanley Cup in 2007, one of the first things he did was take the Stanley Cup to Camp Pendleton to share the victory with a group of Marines.
“We’re in debt to the servicemen and women in this country,” Burke said. “We think we have pressure-packed jobs, but when I made my second trip to Afghanistan to visit the Canadian soldiers there, I saw a guy with his blood type on his sleeve. You start thinking, ‘my job isn’t so pressure-packed.’ ”
Dames hadn’t spent a lot of time watching hockey but quickly grew attached to the game and those who play it.
“I connected immediately with the fact they operated in controlled chaos,” Dames said. “Hockey is a perfect example of having a general plan going into the fight, but turning unpredictable circumstances into success.
“They adapt and overcome challenges on the ice the same way we overcome challenges on the battlefield. Yes, the stakes are different, but we all carry America’s torch with pride and honor.”
Coming from a real-life American hero, those are some pretty powerful words.
Tom Ferda is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.