By @MichaelCaples –
ROYAL OAK – Cory Snedden needed his right ankle put back together after he was hit by a mortar in Iraq.
That didn’t stop him from lacing up skates and giving hockey a try for the first time on July 15.
Snedden, 32, attended a Michigan Warriors practice that day, where he was outfitted with gear and shown the basics of hockey with an individual instructor.
“It was fun,” Snedden said with a smile. “It was a lot of fun being on the ice. I didn’t mind falling too much. It was fun, maybe one of these days I’ll actually be able to hit the puck or do something out there.”
That day, Snedden was one of more than 20 injured veterans taking part in an organized practice with the Michigan Warriors hockey program. Skill levels vary, but they all share one thing in common – a Purple Heart or other military service-connected disabilities.
Snedden can thank 27-year-old Josh Krajewski for his first hockey experience. Krajewski, who spent two and a half years serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, was told to pick up a sport upon his return to the U.S.
“I picked up hockey as a therapeutic program,” Krajewski said. “I had injured my back in Iraq a couple years ago, and after going through extensive physical therapy, they recommended that I pick up a sport. I always wanted to play ice hockey, and never did growing up. Never had the money or the time; didn’t have the time while I was in the army. I’m back home with lots of time now, so I picked it up.
“From square one, I skated five nights a week to learn how to play, found out that not only did it help me with my strength in my back, but it also helped me stay mentally tough as well. Coming out of the military, separating and coming back home, there’s a huge transition period for us military guys, us veterans, and it’s hard to integrate back home – at least I found that for myself. I found that it was easier to transition on the ice – team sport, competitive atmosphere, you get a little rough on the ice – and I found that was very relatable to being in the military with the same group of guys.”
Two years into his new hockey passion, Krajewski decided it was time to share his experience with other disabled veterans. After reading about the USA Hockey Warriors out of Washington, D.C., Krajewski took it upon himself to build a similar program in the Mitten. The program he created – the Michigan Warriors – is currently skating every Tuesday night at John Lindell Ice Arena in Royal Oak, and is open to both standing and sled hockey players.
“I met with tons of different veteran service organizations, student veteran groups at local universities, local businesses, and just went through anybody I could find who were disabled veterans who either knew how to play hockey or wanted to come play hockey,” Krajewski said. “We take all guys, whether they’re brand-new or they’ve been playing their whole life, of any disability, doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they have a Purple Heart from being injured overseas or they have some service-connected disability from the VA hospital system, come on the ice and come play with us.”
In just three months, he has filled multiple locker rooms full of players and he’s already exploring ways the Warriors could expand in the future (like finding a league to play in).
“It’s no cost to the guys, we try to find equipment, either donated, used, whatever it is, and give it to the guys that don’t have it, and all the money we have for our ice time is paid for by donations and sponsors. All of our coaching staff, they’re all volunteers and they come out because they want to give their time to a great cause.”
They’re getting help from some of the best on the ice, as well. Gordon Bowman, longtime vice president of coaching for the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association, has been leading a group of volunteer coaches and aides on the ice for the Warriors.
“It’s awesome,” Bowman said. “What they’ve done for our country, what they’ve given up, it’s the least I can do. All of them are really willing, and that also makes it enticing, that these guys want to learn the game as much as they possibly can. I hope it’s as great for them as it is for me.”
While Bowman may be on the ice helping out, somebody else has been given the “head coach” title. Randi Brandt, a childhood friend of Krajewski’s, has been joining the players on the ice, as well helping off the ice with administrative tasks.
“Josh and I grew up together, and he contacted me when he wanted to put this together kind of as a help with the administrative side,” said Brandt, who grew up playing with boys teams in Redford. “I grew up playing hockey, and I’m also a ref, so with everything that happened, it just kind of came to be that I was on the ice and started making the practices go.
“Giving back is the best thing in the world. Between working with their families and giving them support, to working with the guys, putting smiles back on their faces after over a decade of war, and them losing their identity when they get medically discharged before their time is up or before they want to, they kind of lose who they are, so this is just another way to give these guys a purpose in life.”
Tony Patchell, a 39-year-old Shelby Township resident, said that the donations and funding the program receives makes it possible for him to be out on the ice – something that helps him both mentally and physically.
“It’s great,” said Patchell, who was the player that invited Snedden out for his first skate. “Everybody here is disabled, mostly from combat. I just recovered from back surgery. Just having an opportunity to get out here – hockey’s an expensive sport, and I think at least half the team is completely disabled vets. We can’t work; we just live off disability, so normally hockey would be something that was cost-prohibitive for us. This is helping us out, getting us back active. It’s good for our minds, it makes us feel like a team, and it also gets us active, so we can get rid of the guts and gives us something productive to do.”
The team’s roster is being filled by word-of-mouth at the moment. Justin Weis, a 33-year-old Rochester resident who did two tours in Iraq, wasn’t even sure who organized it, but he was grateful to be there.
“Personally, for me, I know that something I missed was the camaraderie of being in the military,” Weis said. “We get that out here. We all laugh with each other, joke, help each other out, plus it’s nice to get out and exercise. It’s something really fun to do, and it’s a great group of guys.”
Krajewski said he couldn’t have asked for more with the rapid growth of the program.
“It’s awesome. The turnout, the level of excitement and help I’ve been getting from all sorts of different organizations; hockey, veterans, whatever it is, even just people that have nothing to do with either, they’re like, ‘man, this is a great program, how can I help out?’ Seeing all the volunteers come out to help our guys, it’s amazing. It’s incredible.”
For more information on the Michigan Warriors program, check out their official Facebook page.