(Photo: Mike Kruce)
By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
Earlier in the week, the entire country honored the memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, 18 years ago. It's a constant reminder of the cost of freedom, and many veterans have paid the ultimate price.
For the veteran community in Philadelphia, the opportunity to play hockey wasn't always present. A simple phone call changed all that and allowed the Philadelphia Flyer Warriors to become a reality.
"This warrior initiative was really started with a simple phone call," Brad Marsh, Flyers Alumni Association president and head coach of the Warriors, said. "The phone call came from Rick Stabeno. The call was really simple, 'I'm a Flyers fan, I'm a veteran, I'm a hockey player. I would like to start a team in the Philadelphia area. Can you guys help me?' And from that first phone call and a number of follow-up meetings, the Flyers Warriors hockey club was born."
Over the last year, the Flyer Warriors have been training and learning the game, starting with 36 players at their initial "Learn to Skate" program and growing to 70 players at different practices, now split into two teams.
As the Flyers have prepared for the upcoming season, the Warriors will get a taste of NHL life. They are embarking on a training camp of their own that treats them like professional athletes. There will be four straight days on the ice, fitness testing, seminars and guest speakers and culminates with an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Warriors on Monday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center at 2:30 p.m.
As the Flyers start their season in Czech Republic in the beginning of October, the Warriors will also head to a destination for a main event. The 2019 USA Hockey Warrior Classic takes place from Oct. 3-6 and the Philadelphia Flyer Warriors will be participating.
"This tournament has always been our goal," Marsh said. "We've talked about it since Day 1. We're going to grow and we're going to Las Vegas in October. That's been our focus since Day 1, to build, to practice, to improve to the point where we can compete. And we've achieved that."
The team is led by captain Jim Young, a Marine Corps veteran, is the team's captain. Part of Saturday's press conference included the presentation of a team jersey by legendary Flyers captain Bobby Clarke.
"This is an amazing experience, all around, for all of us," Young said. "There's not really many hockey programs with veterans and a lot of veterans in the community in Philadelphia would love to play hockey. That's what we're building ourselves around. We've got guys who are currently playing college hockey to guys who have never stepped on the ice before.
"We really wanted to build ourselves around the idea of inclusion. So having guys come out, getting them set up with the gear, teaching them how to play hockey, all the way to getting them to where we're ready to be in a game-type situation. The support that everyone has given us has really put us across the finish line."
Young is one of the many players that all share a common bond. Not only are they in the veteran community, but all players on the team have a minimum 10 percent disability. For a few moments, any issues that come with their disabilities are put aside, and the brotherhood that was felt during their days in the military is just as strong on the ice.
The Flyers have always been a presence in the community and as an organization, preached a sense of family. With the Philadelphia Flyer Warriors, a new family has been formed, and this band of brothers continues preparation for a big tournament with the support of the Flyers and the Philadelphia community completely behind them.