Kristen raises her right hand in the air to quiet the 50 or so children taking a knee around the folding chair she’s standing on. Behind her, within the glass and Plexiglas walls that border the rink, a resurfacer gets to work inside Cleland Ice Rink on Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The children, donned in gray jerseys concealing shoulder pads, as well as hockey pants, socks and ice skates, are fresh off the ice and full of excitement. It’s the final huddle during a unique summer camp; given the energy in the space, however, it feels like it’s the first.
Once the children quiet, Kristen asks what their favorite part of camp was, and the youngsters respond with a resounding, “Shooting against Thomas!”
The Thomas the children are speaking of is New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss. For the third year in a row the National Hockey League player has traveled to Fort Bragg to spend a week on the ice sharing his passion of hockey with military children.
“I do it just to give back,” Greiss said. “Politics is one side, but the Families make a huge commitment for the whole country that is very appreciated. Also, the people are great to work with, all the Families, all the kids. Everybody is helping out and chipping in. It’s a great experience.”
The 2018 Thomas Greiss Hockey Camp was hosted by the Cape Fear Youth Hockey Association (CFYHA) and sponsored by United Heroes League, a nonprofit organization. Eighty campers in total, ages 5 to 14, amassed more than 20 hours of ice time a piece during the week, which ended with an all-ages scrimmage, July 27.
According to Kristen, president of the CFYHA, and mother of five children — four of which participated in the camp — the weeklong experience not only helped the military kids improve their hockey skills, but bolstered their emotional resiliency.
Military children all face similar challenges, whether they’ve just moved or are preparing to move, whether they’re working to make new friends or saying goodbye to old friends, or if they’re dealing with a parent’s deployment, she said. Spending time with other military kids gives them someone to lean on.
“It kind of gives them that emotional outlet,” Kristen continued. “They can be aggressive but they can control their emotions. They can have control over how they manage the puck, where to shoot, [and] how to skate — that kind of channels it so it gives them some kind of control in their life. They’re able to say, ‘Hey, I might not be able to control when dad comes home, but I can control my emotions. I can control how well I play the game and how I focus on the game.’”
Kristen, whose husband serves in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), said the camp, and the opportunity her children have to play in the CFYHL during the regular season, helps her children cope — especially when dad deploys.
“There is a noticeable change; the kids get a little bit more emotional and more needy in a sense, but it seems like when they’re on the ice it kind of goes away,” Kristen said. “They’re not focused on, ‘Is dad’s friend going to get hurt this time, where is dad going, or are we going to see him on the news?’ They’re able to focus on hockey and not … let it go elsewhere.”
Samantha, military spouse and mother of two, can relate.
Samantha’s husband, who is also assigned to 3rd SFG (A), is currently deployed. She said the camp is a big deal for her and her two children as the three of them work to cope with their service member being absent frequently.
“For us it’s honestly the recognition … that these kids make a huge sacrifice,” Samantha said. “My husband is gone all the time, and people don’t recognize that the kids deal with that also. While he’s dealing with it and doesn’t get to be with our Family, our kids don’t get to be with him.”
Maj. Adams, a civil affairs officer assigned to 3rd SFG (A), and director of hockey operations for the CFYHL, served as the head coach during the camp. He said participating in the camp not only benefited military children, it also benefited the Soldiers who volunteered as coaches and counselors.
“It provides a place for me to go and not worry about what’s going on outside of the hockey rink,” Adams said. “I can sit with kids, connect with kids, [and] provide them mentorship and coaching. I’ve played hockey for about 40 years, so this is me giving back to the game that has afforded me a lot of opportunities.”
Sgt. 1st Class Ireland, a Green Beret and wounded warrior assigned to 3rd SFG (A), said he’s thankful Adams has encouraged him and other wounded warriors to participate in the camp in the last three years and teach military kids about sled hockey.
“We get out on the ice and talk to the kids about resiliency … that regardless of your setbacks you can overcome it, there’s ways to do that,” Ireland said. “It’s a lot about Family and it’s a lot about perseverance, and that hits home for a lot of wounded warriors and parents here.
“It’s an incredible camp,” Ireland continued. “There’s no sense of community like there is in the hockey community. For those children who are missing parents, they definitely come here and … have a big Family. You can see the bond right away.
“There’s just something different about hockey,” Ireland concluded.