Healing Through Hockey

USA Hockey Magazine | By Ryan Williamson Photos By Norman Hayward  | November Issue | Online Magazine Link pg 34-36

Semper Fi Camp Aids Veterans’ Recovery With Sled Hockey Experience

When John Callaway arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in May, he brought with him a memento from his past. It was a ring that belonged to his grandfather that signified his time on the Air Force base where many prospective Olympic athletes now train. For Callaway, his experience in Colorado Springs, Colo., wasn’t just about honoring his grandfather. He was there along with 18 other military veterans to learn valuable on- and off-ice skills at the Team Semper Fi Sled Hockey Camp. The four-day camp is one of 50 sports-related events the Team Semper Fi Fund organizes each year that use sport to help wounded military veterans in their recovery efforts. “Sports help [veterans] realize they can be active,” said Kelley Fisher, sport manager for the Semper Fi Fund. “A lot of them have shared experiences and being a veteran is a natural bond for these guys.” During the camp, the participants learned basic skills of the game from both coaches and members of the U.S. National Sled Team. Whether they play on teams back home or were sitting in the sled for the first time, there was plenty for the participants to learn while on the ice.

Off the ice, the campers spent time working on strength and conditioning, along with learning about proper nutrition and sports psychology.

This camp was just one example of how far Callaway has come in a relatively short amount of time, both mentally and physically. Born in Penrose, Colo., but now a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., he was medically discharged from the Marine Corps in 2010 after suffering a back injury in Afghanistan that robbed him of the use of his legs.

Just six months ago, his injuries made it nearly impossible to perform even simple tasks such as lifting his year-old daughter, which left him with suicidal thoughts.

Then, things began to turn around after hearing about sled hockey from a fellow veteran. He joined the Tampa Bay Lightning’s sled hockey program, and the benefits were almost immediate.

“Everyone is on an equal playing field,” he said. “We all struggle but still feel like we belong. You enjoy that team camaraderie.”

That same camaraderie was on display at the Semper Fi camp, where Callaway was able to hone his skills with some of the world’s best sled hockey players while also returning to the weight room for the first time in more than a year.

“This is so awesome just because everyone is in such high spirits,” he said. “Everyone is cheering each other on. It’s just amazing to see all of us come together.”

Callaway is just one of many wounded warriors who have found solace through sled hockey. Paul Schaus and Rico Roman, both members of the gold medal-winning U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team in 2014, said having the opportunity to join a sled hockey team not only helped their physical recovery, but has also played a huge role in their journey toward living an active life.

“When I was injured and stuck in the hospital, I had everything team-related taken away from me,” recalled Roman, who is training for his third trip to the Paralympic Winter Games. “Getting to play helped me a ton. You not only get to be on a team, you get that camaraderie in the locker room, which is huge.”

While most sled hockey teams feature people from all walks of life, the impact that veterans have on an entire team cannot be overstated.

“When you go to tournaments, a lot of the team captains are guys with military backgrounds,” Roman said. “Guys who are civilians tend to have a lot of respect for those guys and look up to them.”

With mentors such as Roman and Schaus, the participants in this year’s camp learned what it takes to be successful on the ice.

“It helps that we get to come out here and help them,” Schaus said. “It can definitely get frustrating at times when you’re first learning. But if guys stick with it, it’s an awesome feeling when they break through.”

As the camp drew to a close, these veterans were already looking forward to taking what they learned and using it to further fuel their recovery process. For Roberto Rojas that meant playing more sled hockey.

Bitten by the hockey bug, Rojas was eager to get home to Utah and find a local team near his hometown.

“I’ve always wanted to try out, and I thought it was really good,” he said. “I’m glad we had the opportunity to get together and learn together.”

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