by Jim Charshafian || AHL On The Beat Archive
San Antonio has been known as “Military City, U.S.A.” for decades because of the many different military bases located in the community. Members from various branches of the American armed forces have called San Antonio home while serving their country in the Alamo City and countless men and women have come to town to embark upon a journey that exemplifies bravery, sacrifice and selflessness.
On Mar. 3, those same members of the armed forces witnessed firsthand how much their efforts are valued by the people of San Antonio when the Rampage beat the Houston Aeros, 2-1, in front of a crowd of 11,382 on their ninth annual Military Appreciation Night at the AT&T Center.
To commemorate the occasion, the Rampage wore special camouflage-themed jerseys that were auctioned off after the contest. The event raised more than $47,000 and all proceeds from the auction went to the San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Team.
“Our commitment to them,” said Ryan Snider, Rampage director of hockey operations, “is to do this every year and create awareness of the sacrifices that they’re making on a daily basis.”
In the nine seasons since the event’s inception, the Rampage have raised over $227,000 for the military community. Snider, who joined Spurs Sports & Entertainment in 2007, has even further advanced the company’s military ties since becoming a part of the Rampage front office team.
It was Snider who was the driving force behind the formation of the Rampage Sled Hockey Team, which began five years ago.
The process started when Operation Comfort, an organization that serves wounded veterans through therapeutic recreation as part of their rehab, wanted in on sled hockey. During a ski trip in Colorado they had seen an exhibition of the sport that piqued the interest of their members, primarily Chris Leverkuhn, a former Army soldier who had served in Iraq.
“We tried it out and loved it,” said Leverkuhn. ”We wanted to pursue getting a team here and getting funding for it.”
Upon the organization’s arrival back in Texas, Snider received a call from president and founder of Operation Comfort, Janis Roznowski, about sled hockey.
“It just so happened,” recalled Snider, “that a gentleman by the name of Lonnie Hannah had recently moved to San Antonio from Dallas and he wanted to start a sled hockey team here as well.”
Hannah, who is a two-time Paralympian gold medalist in the sport, combined efforts with Roznowski to make a sled hockey team in San Antonio a reality.
“These two met each other and got the ball rolling on it,” said Snider. “They contacted us about ice time and we said, ‘We can help you with ice but we can do more, let’s get this going.’
“So that initial year we donated some money to the team and were able to procure an equipment deal with Reebok. They supplied them with all the gear they needed short of the sled and the sticks. We purchased the helmets, pads, gloves, and uniforms and then donated them to the team. We helped them secure ice time at the Northwoods hockey rink and we helped them get recognition through our resources.”
Hannah decided to coach the team in its early goings. What no one knew, however, was how quickly the team would achieve on-ice success.
“It’s a lot easier to teach guys who are used to taking orders because they follow them to a T,” said Leverkuhn. “We told them what to do and they went out and did it.”
The Rampage Sled Hockey Team won their first-ever game that year and quickly became one of the best squads in the country.
“The team took off right away,” said Snider. “A couple of their athletes have become very good at the sport.”
Members Rico Roman, Josh Sweeney and Jen Yung Lee have been named to the current U.S. National Team while Leverkuhn has joined the U.S. Developmental squad. Unfortunately, the foursome was not able to attend the event because of their National Team commitments.
As a group, the Rampage Sled Hockey Team finished last season ranked third in the country. Leverkuhn said that while the team does enjoy winning on the ice, there is a certain connection that the members of the team have grown to share.
“We’ve got that brotherhood bond,” said Leverkuhn.
Rampage forward David Marshall, whose father, cousin and grandfather all served in the Navy, caught one of the Sled Hockey Team’s recent practices at the Northwoods ice facility and was impressed by the will of the squad.
“They’re all so humble,” Marshall said. “Sometimes you think you’re having a bad day then you see the sled hockey players and it’s an unbelievable experience to watch them out there.”
Before the formation of the Sled Hockey Team, the Rampage jersey auction on Military Appreciation Night raised money for local military charities. Now, all proceeds of the auction go to the group’s funding.
“The money helps them with their travels, ice time, and operating costs,” said Snider. “It’s an expensive sport, so we’re able to keep them going. It’s something we’re really proud of.”
The Rampage have also set up events with the team and Lackland Air Force Base in years past. Last fall the Rampage organized a team-training event in which players went through the same rigorous exercises that the Air Force cadets endure.
“We put these heavy backpacks on during the training and I think I almost fell over and died,” Marshall jokingly said. “It was good to hang out with those guys. They’re the ones that go out and make it possible for us to live our lives freely.”
For all of his military support within San Antonio, Snider was named Honorary Commander for Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Greenwood and his 323rd Training Squadron at Lackland last September. The recommendation came from SS&E Senior Account Executive Jimi Olsen, whose term was running out at the time.
“The first person I thought of was Ryan,” said Olsen when mentioning who he wanted to succeed him. “He has done so much for the military members here. He jumped at the chance.”
“It’s more ceremonial than anything else” said Snider, “but it’s definitely an honor for me to see what they do and I try to support them in any way I can.”
As for Military Appreciation Night, Marshall was one of many players who were excited to be a part of the event.
“For us as players, it’s a great way for us to show our support,” he said. “Even the guys who aren’t from the United States have a tremendous amount of respect for what our members of the military do.”
Coming from a military family, Marshall knows the sacrifices that are made by the men and women of the armed forces.
“I’m very proud of all my family members who have served,” he said. “I think I would have gone into the service myself if it weren’t for hockey.
“Events like these put things into perspective a bit. We play a game for a living and these guys are going into battle.”
According to Snider, recognizing the members of the military once a year is the least the Rampage can do.
“The men and women of the armed forces are such an important part of our country and such a vital part of our local community,” he said. “I’d go as far as to say that it’s our obligation to do something to honor them.”