by Andrew Pender || AHL On The Beat Archive
Sport in the United States has always been ingrained in the fabric of our society. It is probably the only pastime that can unite a city where the people from all races and ages cheer for the same thing. Just look at how our country unites during the Olympics.
From generation to generation the passion for sports challenges our imagination and dares us to hope and dream. Playing sports creates friendships and teaches us teamwork.
Sport has also played an important part during our wars. For example, shortly after the United States became involved in World War II at the end of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided not to cancel the upcoming 1942 baseball season, explaining, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going." President Roosevelt understood how sport helps keep a sense of normality for both citizens and soldiers during a war that brings a lot of struggle and uncertainty.
With our war currently going on overseas, many of our troops today use sport to keep that level of normalcy when they’re not being faced with the tragedy of what they’re exposed to every day. One of those sports current being played on base in Afghanistan is ball hockey.
Organized by the Canadian troops as a simple extracurricular activity at first, the sport has become so popular on base that a league, comprised of the many brave men and women in our Armed Forces, had to be created. Again with the help of the Canadian troops, the league was officially formed and a rink was built, fully equipped with an electronic scoreboard and standard hockey nets.
A player from one of the teams is U.S. Army Master Sergeant Gary Vandertang, a resident of Rochester, N.Y., and a fan of the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans. About a month ago, he contacted the Amerks organization requesting a set of hockey jerseys because they wanted a jersey that proudly displayed “Americans” on it and knew that the professional hockey club out in Rochester would be perfect.
Upon hearing the request, Amerks manager of communications and hockey operations Warren Kosel was honored at the chance to fulfill the request and was delighted to help in any way the organization could for the troops. Kosel, whose great-uncle served in World War II, took Master Sgt. Vandertang’s request over to Amerks president Lewis Staats, who was instantly was on board.
Even though Vandertang was requesting any kind of jersey (replica or practice) that displays the famed Americans logo on it, what they got was more then he expected. Once the package arrived to the base, Vandertang found 16 game-worn jerseys from the 2006-07 season awaiting to be worn with pride once again. Vandertang and his teammates were gracious for the game-worn jerseys, but the Amerks organization was just honored they could help in any way.
Here is his e-mail back to Kosel, thanking the second-oldest American Hockey League franchise for its efforts in the initiative:
I just wanted to make sure you received the email that we got the Jerseys and they are great!!! People couldn’t believe that not only did we get jerseys, but they were the "real deal". Hopefully we will get some actual game photos soon, but here is a group photo that we had taken last night before the game. Had a few people not there but it’s fun having the Canadians wear the Americans Jerseys, I guess they were ok with it since they were made in Canada. For the team make-up we have 8 US, 5 Canadian and 1 Australian too. Currently our record is 2-1. When we have our next game I am going to try to get a photographer there for the whole game to take pictures. Again I want to thank you and the team for the support; it was really great to have the jerseys.
All around our country, sports organizations have done what they can to give their thanks to our troops and the Rochester Americans are happy to help. Certainly if these soldiers reached out to any of the 30 NHL teams with the same request made they would have done the same thing. But instead they reached out to an organization in the American Hockey League, one whose logo gets voted yearly as one of the best in sports, an organization that has deep roots in the hockey dating back to 1956. The Amerks jersey is simple, not flashy in any way, but because of its traditional design it has a stylish look that has remained relevant in professional sports for decades.
Master Sgt. Vandertang sent back a few photos to Kosel, one with the members of his ball hockey team sporting their Americans jerseys and one pictured with their hockey hero and AHL legend Don Cherry. Cherry, an Amerks Hall of Famer, played on three of Rochester’s Calder Cup championship teams in the 1960’s and was named the 1974 AHL coach of the year during his time as head coach of the organization.
Cherry, who is now a host of Hockey Night in Canada, is an advocate of the military and makes frequent visits overseas to express how much he appreciates all the sacrifices the brave men and women deployed do to keep us safe and give us the opportunity to live in freedom.
This story is more than just about an organization handing out jerseys to our troops, but more about giving back. No one in the Amerks organization has ever met Master Sgt. Gary Vandertang or anyone else in the ball hockey league, but it doesn’t matter. The instantaneous connection that we have for those who serve is what makes the human heart special. The continuous effort to comfort our soldiers in any way, whether it is sending over jerseys, letters or pictures is our way as citizens to remind them how grateful we are. Actors, musicians and athletes have even gone over to visit our troops to help bring them a piece of home to them.
Without question, when it comes to sports, whether we enjoy as spectators or playing, we wouldn’t continue to enjoy our favorite pastimes without our brave soldiers risking their lives for our freedoms. As a country, we could never truly repay these brave men and women for what they’re doing for us and their unselfish commitment to serve is a daily reminder what it truly means to be an American. So thank you for being everything to us and enjoy the jerseys. We’re not surprised how perfect they look on everyone. After all, our team is named after you and everyone you’re fighting for back home.