Wind-whipped and winded after a hard-fought game, members of the USA Warrior sled hockey team slowly made their way off the ice at Soldier Field. Temperatures were chilly but spirits were high as players wheeled their way toward warmth.
As they headed off the ice, J.J. O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, sat near the exit waiting to greet them.
“This is a really big first trip and competition for us, and it’s at Solider Field.
“It’s magical. Football and hockey all in one,” O’Connor said with a smile. “I don’t know too many guys that get this opportunity. This is once in a lifetime.”
Who could argue that any group deserved it more? The Warriors sled hockey squad flew from Washington D.C. for the chance to play on the outdoor ice at one of Chicago’s greatest sports landmarks. It was the first time on an outdoor rink for many of them – the first time playing in a real game for some.
“Some of the guys on the USA Warriors team got injured as recently as six months ago. One of them lost his legs in an IED explosion six months ago and only started playing six weeks ago, and he’s out on the ice tonight. What a great sport for someone to be able to do that,” said Jim Smith, a USA Hockey executive board member who served as one of the game’s officials.
“You’ve got guys who fought for our country, playing at the Bears 50 yard line on outdoor ice. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on the USA Warriors as they faced off against the local Chicago Blackhawks’ sled hockey team before a crowd of friends and family members who braved the chilly temperatures.
“This is a really big first trip and competition for us, and it’s at Solider Field. It’s just awesome,” said Warriors Coach Michael Vaccaro.
“These guys did so much for the country and they lost a lot. [It’s great] to see them come back and get involved in something that puts a smile on their face – something they enjoy. They forget about everything else when they’re out on the ice; it’s all about hockey.”
The city of Chicago made sure the Warriors received a hero’s welcome when they touched down at O’Hare, with representatives from the Chicago Fire and Police Departments on hand to greet them.
“There were fans and signs set up and when we walked off the plane they were all clapping and cheering,” Vaccaro said. “All the firemen came on the airplane and shook our hands and helped the guys with wheelchairs off. It was just great.”
The warm welcome was just beginning. Organizers rolled out the red carpet for the Warriors squad, which also featured a team of standing amputee players who faced off against a team of local celebrities organized by U.S. Representative Mike Quigley. It was a fitting end to a day that began with a special meet and greet with members of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“This is a weekend that people really recognize us, and everyone’s been thanking us for our service,” Vaccaro said.
“It’s great because a lot of times the guys forget about that. When they’re in the hospital having their surgeries and going through all that stuff they get a little down, but this is something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.”