98th Drill Sergeant takes Wounded Warriors to Chicago

06/07/2013  |  Story by Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vaccaro 98th Training Division (IET), 3/318th
The Griffon

Drill Sergeant Michael Vaccaro from the 98th Training Division (IET), 3/318th and coach for the USA Warriors Sled hockey team recently took his hockey team to Chicago to meet and skate with the Chicago Blackhawks. Veteran Mark Dunford (left), Vaccaro (center) and Pat Cain (right) from the Chicago Blackhawks. Courtesy Photo

CHICAGO, Ill — The USA Warriors left for Chicago on a cold morning Feb. 15, 2013 arriving at Reagan National Airport at zero dark thirty to catch their flight. Hockey bags, wheelchairs, sticks, sleds and Family arrived on the bus from Walter Reed, Bethesda, Md. The airport was just waking up as we entered in full force. Bags were piled high as they were checked by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. They did a great job getting everyone through security as smooth as possible.

We were on a direct United Flight that landed within two hours. Once on the ground and heading to the arrival gate, the airplane was diverted to another gate. Fire trucks pulled up on both sides. To our surprise, when the doors opened, Chicago’s Fire and Police Department greeted us with thanks for our service and offers of help. Everyone got off the airplane and walked into the terminal where we were greeted by hundreds of cheering people, police, firefighters and the USO was holding up signs and cheering.

The USO and TSA guided us through the airport to pick up our equipment at baggage claim. Police and firefighters met us there and loaded up the buses for us. After a short walk through a secure area, we arrived at the USO where we had a pancake breakfast with coffee, fruit, bacon, eggs and a lot of thank yous and smiles. We ate, met the USO volunteers and other military personnel, and had a great time sharing stories and enjoying the hospitality.

Soon, we were on to the bus and headed to our first game of the weekend. The bus was lively, no one was tired. There was a lot of chatter about the game we were to play, the excitement of the crowd at the airport, and a chance to meet the Blackhawks.

After an hour on the bus, we arrived at the ice rink in Bensenville. JJ O’Connor of USA Hockey and the team to play, the GLASA Falcons, greeted us with a warm welcome and a lunch before the game. The Falcons tried to fatten us up on Chicago style pizza, salad, soda and dessert.

The USA Warriors Sled hockey team breaks for a moment to take a group photo with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Courtesy Photo.

While the players were eating and talking about the game, the sleds were checked and adjustments were made. We did not bring our large toolbox, but thanks to the rink and the other team, we were provided a small drill to add a strap to a sled. Blades were adjusted and sticks were taped. Locker rooms were assigned and water bottles were given to us for the bench. Jerseys were passed out and the players started getting ready. Game one of the weekend was ready to start.

Our team hit the ice hard and fast. After a couple of quick adjustments and a warm up, game one began. The game went well with players staying in position and passing. A few of the other team’s top players could not make it to the game. We outscored them seven to one. Our team had a great time and a good start to a wonderful weekend. Game one was in the books.

After arriving at the hotel, checking in, and cleaning up we were back on the bus again, this time heading to a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game. At the arena, we were escorted down to the ice for a group picture with Congressman Mike Quigley, U.S. Representative for Illinois’s fifth congressional district. We were able to look around and walk out on the ice. After some fun on the ice, one of our players was needed for some second intermission amusement.

Calvin Todd was selected to represent the team in a shoot out from center ice. A board was placed in front of the net with three holes in the bottom. To win, a puck had to go into one of the holes. Three people were selected, the first was a 10-year-old boy who shot from the blue line and missed his three shots. Next was a young lady who shot from center ice and she missed as well. Next, the announcer introduced Calvin Todd as a USA Warrior and cheers came from the crowd. He had three chances to get the puck into the net and did it on his first try. The stadium went wild as the puck went into the net.

During the game fans came up to say thanks and hi and every one had a great time. When the game ended, it was down stairs to the locker room area. In the elevator, on the way down, we met Hockey Hall of Fame member Tony Esposito, former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender. He signed some autographs and talked to the guys. We also met wining Blackhawks goalie Ray Emory before leaving for the hotel.

Before starting day two, everyone had a good night’s sleep, woke to breakfast and then on to Soldier Field to skate with the Blackhawks. The bus pulled into the field entrance letting us out in the tunnel for the short walk to the locker rooms. The standing team, USA Warriors, got dressed and then hit the ice. We all watched as the Blackhawks practiced. Coach Quenneville called the players over to the bench to meet us, give us the game plan, and then onto the ice we went. As the standing team practiced, the sled team watched from the bench and on the ice from their wheelchairs.

After practice, the Blackhawks skated around and everyone gathered on the ice taking pictures and talking to the players. The players seemed just as excited to talk to us as we did to them. We continued talking to the Blackhawks while heading to the locker room and back onto the buses for lunch at Carson. The food and service was out of this world and the 84 year old waitress never stopped moving.

We headed to Soldier Field for the Night Sled Game vs. The Blackhawks Sled Team after a brief rest at the hotel. While players were getting ready for the game, the press was asking for interviews, equipment was being checked and the 416th Engineer Army Reserve Color Guard from Chicago was waiting to go.

When the Zamboni left the ice, players got into their sleds and started warming up the best they could. Game time temperature was 16 degrees but it didn’t seem to affect the team as they continued moving around. The sleds were lined up and ready to go. Mike Cain, one of our sled players, sang the National Anthem to begin the game.

Our team started out strong scoring the first three goals in the first period. Slowly the Blackhawks began putting on pressure and after the second period it was 4 to 3 in favor of the Blackhawks. Both teams played great and our players improved every time they hit the ice, but could not catch up. Even though we lost the game, no one seemed to mind. It was a great experience and to be able to say we played at Soldier Field was a chance of a lifetime.

After the game the ice was cut and the Standing team took the ice. We were invited up to the press box to watch the game and stay out of the cold. We got to meet the Blackhawks Sled team and enjoyed sharing stories and watching the game.

When we arrived back at the hotel, some of the team headed out to enjoy the Chicago nightlife while the rest went to bed. The next morning after breakfast, it was back to Soldier Field to watch the NCAA Collage games at the Hockey City Classic. We all sat in the same area and even though it was cold, we watched the game and had a great time.

One final bus ride to the airport where all the gear was unloaded for the trip home. The weekend was a time to remember and everyone will be talking about it for a long time. Thanks to everyone that helped to make this trip possible.

God bless America,

God bless our Troops

And God bless Hockey.

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