Minnesota Guardsmen Historical Hockey Happenings
By Sgt. Lynette Hoke, 34th Combat Aviation Brigade
/ Published January 20, 2009
Joint Base Balad, Iraq -- You can take the Guardsman out of the State of Hockey, but you can't take the hockey out the Guardsman. That claim would put to the ultimate test when hundreds of Minnesota National Guardsmen deployed to the deserts of Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2009.
By Lynette Hoke
34th Combat Aviation Brigade
Unwilling to forget their state's pastime sport, the men and women of the Minnesota Army and Air National Guard came up with a plan, to join the 'State of Hockey' in the official 'Minnesota Hockey Day' on Jan 17.
Along with the Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports Net, dozens of Minnesota Airmen and Soldiers worked tirelessly to create a unique environment for the players and fans. Innovation and motivation were set in motion to create a hometown hockey rink.
"It was nice to see both components come together for Hockey Day in Minnesota, we work for separate branches of the service but we all are from Minnesota, and hockey brings people together especially Minnesotans," said Chief Warrant Officer Jeffery Pratt, Standardization Officer, 34th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Early morning, Jan. 17, as the desert sun rose above the horizon, the scene was set. A make-shift rink, side boards painted and mounted on each end of a concrete aircraft parking pad. Center 'ice' had its own custom made Minnesota Hockey Day - Iraq logo and the goalie nets were in place.
Finally, the commanding officer of Task Force 34, Col. Clay Brock, drops the puck to signal the official start of the game between the Minnesota Army National Guard's 834th Aviation Support Battalion "Skaters" and the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing "Bulldogs."
"I could not have dreamed up such a great day!" said Senior Master Sgt. Steve Samuelson, Quality Assurance Inspector, 148th Fighter Wing. "The weather was perfect, with a chill in the air, the competition was great and the sportsmanship was outstanding."
Nine hours before Minnesota would start broadcasting their hockey games, the Soldiers and Airmen of the state's National Guard would start their game in the Iraqi desert.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to be part of something historic," said Capt. Bruce Kelii, Medical Operations, 834th Aviation Support Battalion. "It will be a moment in time that will not be forgotten for any participant or spectator. Both squads played fabulous and the crowd turn-out was awesome."
In an ironic twist the flight line hockey rink attracted spectators from the air. The usual subject of everyone's attention, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, paused in their usual routes to check out the game. Hockey fans and air crews waved too each other between pictures.
"I thought about home a lot during the game. Goalies find a place called "the zone", it is a tunnel vision/hearing thing. We don't hear anything other than the ball/puck being struck and whizzing through the air," said Capt. Kelli, a native of Bloomington, Minn. "As the game began and I started to slip in and out of the zone- all I could think about was that ... It's my wife Barbara's birthday today and was hoping her birthday gift will arrive back home today."
The screams of the fans and the click of the sticks really set the stage for a great day for hockey.
"You could really feel how much people miss the sport of hockey by the way everyone put everything they had out on the rink," said Senior Master Sgt. Samuelson. "The fans really made the day special too, their cheers and chants made me feel that I was at an actual hockey game."
"Their sportsmanship was great," said Spc. James Riely, Chinook Mechanic, 834th Aviation Support Battalion. "I think that being able to take time away from a busy day to play the great game of hockey brought lots of joy to many people. Everyone played well together."
As the scoreboard made its final read, the Minnesota Air Guard beat Minnesota Army Guard 4 to 2. Being beaten on the rink, didn't faze some Soldiers soaring spirits after playing a old school game of street hockey.
"So many people from Minnesota and Soldiers in Iraq had to coordinate so many pieces to the puzzle and make this a successful event," said Capt Kelii. "We were part of a very special day here in Iraq and our state recognized hockey day. It is the most unique hockey event I have ever been part of."
The Airmen of the 148th Fighter Wing of Duluth, Minn. are expected to be back in the state later this month. The Soldiers of the 834th Aviation Support Battalion are expected to return to Minnesota early this summer.