By Casey Holland
The game of hockey is a special sport, played by children and adults alike. Yes, it is a sport where scores are kept, with winners and losers, but hockey can also provide a therapeutic outlet for one’s day-to-day pressures. Hockey can be more therapeutic for some than others, as is the case within the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community, home to the Navy SEALs, who for over 20 years have been the tip of the spear in the United States war on terror. Hockey has become an integral part of this community’s toolbox for coping with extended deployments in hostile environments, post deployment assimilation, loss of friends, sleep issues, injuries, and the long lasting effects of combat.
While stationed at the Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island, then 36yr old Navy SEAL Commander (Cmdr.) Ryan Croley, a lifelong Detroit Red Wings fan, decided it was time to learn how to play hockey. Cmdr. Croley purchased equipment, joined a league at the newly built University of Rhode Island Boss Arena, and quickly realized there were benefits to playing hockey beyond the physical. After completing a nearly 18-month deployment and
training rotation Cmdr. Croley jumped back on the ice and recruited his SEAL brothers to join him at 6:00am, twice a week, at the local rink. Word spread and participation grew to the point where it was clear these morning skates were providing a much needed outlet for the NSW community. In 2012, with support from the Navy SEAL Foundation, Cmdr. Croley founded the Virginia Beach Hockey Club (VBHC) to formalize the program, increase involvement of the NSW community, and help grow the game in the Virginia Beach /
Hampton Roads Virginia area, home to the highest population of active duty, retired military, and Gold Star families in the country. Cmdr. Croley also started the Challenge Sled Hockey program for military, first responders and civilians unable to play standup hockey. In 2019, with support from the Boston Bruins Alumni, the VBHC was rebranded the Warrior for Life Fund to professionalize and widen the reach of the programs.
Recently, I spoke with Frank Simonetti, the incoming Boston Bruins Alumni president, and Warrior for Life Fund Board member. Simonetti’s involvement began five years ago when friend Tony Cabana invited he and fellow Bruins Alum Bob Beers to Virginia Beach to meet now Captain Ryan Croley and experience the Naval Special Warfare hockey community. According to Simonetti, he was “blown away” after meeting these men, their families,
skating in their memorial hockey game, and seeing first-hand how important hockey is to this community. It made Simonetti realize he had begun to take the game he’d played most of his life for granted, causing him to reflect on how important hockey and the bonds its created have been to his overall wellbeing, and the need to work in support of those playing hockey for reasons beyond the sport.
After Simonetti returned home he was “all fired up” to share the experience he had, and the impact hockey was having in the NSW community, with his fellow Alumni. The next year Simonetti was joined by former Bruins Rick Middleton, Bob Sweeney, Tim Sweeney, David A. Jensen, Ken Hodge, and Bruce Crowder to guest coach at WFLF youth hockey clinics, play in the Memorial hockey game, and get to know and show support for the NSW community. The connection between the Alumni and Navy SEALs was instantaneous, forged by the common bond of hockey.
Simonetti looks forward to the one week each July he and his wife Maria spend in Virginia Beach supporting the Warrior for Life Fund. The week starts off with the WFLF youth hockey clinics, social gatherings with NSW members and their families, visits to ships & bases to show support for Sailors and Naval Special Operations Forces, and to participate in the WFLF Showcase Sled Hockey and Memorial hockey games.
This year Bruins Alumni Mark Mowers joined Simonetti as a guest coach at the youth clinics. Fellow Alums Ken Hodge Jr. and 1984 Olympic and NHL Veteran David A. Jensen arrived later in the week to tour the Navy’s newest nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, meet with NSW members and their families, and help coach the Sled Hockey Showcase and Memorial hockey games.
For the second year in a row members of the US National Sled Hockey Team held a clinic for the WFLF Sled Team, played in the Showcase game, and spent time with members of the NSW community. In attendance were 2022 Sochi Paralympic Gold Medalists Travis Dodson, Joey Woodke, Rico Roman, Ralph DeQuebec, and US National Team Head Coach David Hoff. Each player is retired military who sustained their injuries in combat then took up the game of sled hockey as part of their recovery, ultimately rising to the pinnacle of their sport.
For ten years the NSW community has held a Memorial hockey game to honor Navy SEALs who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The teams are mostly active duty and retired Navy SEALs with a few wives, sons, and daughters mixed in. This year the game was permanently renamed the Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois Memorial Game in honor of the SEAL Team 8 Commander who tragically lost his life following injuries sustained in a training accident. Cmdr. Bourgeois was not a hockey player but was well respected and a great friend to many in the NSW community, and a big supporter of the Warrior for Life Fund.
Simonetti and his fellow Bruins Alumni are honored for the invitation to play in these games. Since Simonetti’s first Memorial game in 2018 he has seen NSW turnout more than double as the WFLF grows support within the community. “In fact, so many players came out to play this year that we volunteered for coaching duty.”
Simonetti is thankful for the former Bruins who have donated hockey equipment and volunteered their time to visit Virginia Beach to support the WFLF community. Simonetti highlighted Kevan Miller who donated significant amounts of Warrior Hockey gear while playing for the Bruins. Kevan’s generosity continues in retirement as he, along with Brad Marchand, created a March & Mill Co. “Enforcer” t-shirt to honor fallen SEAL Team 8 Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois, with all net proceeds benefitting the Warrior for Life Fund.
Simonetti is proud and grateful for how the Boston Bruins, Bruins Foundation and Bruins Alumni have stepped up to support the Warrior for Life Fund. The 2019 Alumni Classic – Face Off for Heroes 2 game series between the Bruins and NY Rangers Alumni kicked off the Warrior for Life Fund’s rebranding campaign while raising essential funds for their programs.
The Boston Bruins provide "swag" for the kids attending WFLF summer hockey camps, autographed items for raffles, and sponsor the post Memorial game reception.
In 2021 the Bruins Foundation added the Warrior for Life Fund as a beneficiary of their Annual Bowl with a Bruin & Friends event held each September. Also in 2021, a WFLF team of 15 active duty and retired Naval Special Warfare hockey players traveled to Boston to play the Bruins Alumni at Warrior Arena. The Alumni lost the game, but a rematch is in the works for what is sure to become an annual event.
It is clear from these events, and several not listed, the partnership between the Boston Bruins / Boston Bruins Alumni and the Warrior for Life Fund is strong. Simonetti noted the Warrior for Life Fund recognizes four organizations as Partners that have worked to raise its profile outside the Virginia Beach community and provide funding to expand and professionalize its programs. The four include the Navy SEAL Foundation, Operation Hat Trick (OHT), the Boston Bruins Foundation and the Boston Bruins Alumni Association. Simonetti says, “It’s an honor for the Bruins Alumni to be included in this esteemed group of charitable organizations, and we will continue our efforts to engage and support the Warrior for Life Fund community.”
The Boston Bruins brand is also growing within the Virginia Beach / Hampton Roads NSW and hockey community due to the ongoing support and good will received. Simonetti offered, “It’s great to see kids and adults sporting the Bruins Spoked B around the rink, something you didn’t see five years ago.”
To learn more about the Warrior for Life Fund please visit: www.warriorforlifefund.org
About the Warrior for Life Fund
The Warrior for Life Fund is dedicated to supporting active duty, retired veterans, and their families as they transition through the unique challenges of combat service. The Warrior for Life Fund aims to provide programs, venues, and infrastructure to support service members and their families long-term.