By PATRICK SLACK
Corralling National Hockey League (NHL) players during their brief offseason is often a difficult task.
But when the organization on the other end of the phone is Defending the Blue Line, players usually line up to volunteer in a hurry.
Defending the Blue Line, a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to ensure that children of military members can participate in hockey, organized a military appreciation event at Camp Ripley, Friday.
Six NHL players spoke, signed autographs and T-shirts and posed for photographs with about 100 kids and family members of troops, then visited 200 soldiers training in the field with the National Guard.
The group of players ranged from seasoned NHL veterans to top rookies, including Eric Boulton (New York Islanders), Mike Condon (Montreal), Nate Schmidt (Washington), Brock Nelson (New York Islanders), Danny Kristo (New York Rangers) and Nick Bjugstad (Florida).
Bringing in a large group of players for an event like this is a lengthy process, said Defending the Blue Line president Shane Hudella, a retired first sergeant from the Minnesota National Guard, but one that is always rewarding.
“It’s not easy, but it’s worth it every time,” Hudella said. “A lot of logistics. The Minnesota National Guard is a great partner of ours to allow the NHL pros to come up and visit soldiers in the field and to do an autograph signing is really important to them.
“They’re all great guys that support our military and our country and Minnesota,” he said. “So, a lot goes into it, but it seems like every year it comes off without a hitch.”
Being able to welcome in professional athletes and host an event of this size is also deeply valued by Camp Ripley.
“It’s very important,” Maj. John Donovan said. “Part of our mission here at Camp Ripley is to be of service to the community and so we see this as really a win-win situation. It’s a morale-boosting event for our soldiers, but then we also get local citizens who are able to come out and experience some of these special occasions, such as meeting professional hockey players from the NHL.
“The NHL players come up here and get an opportunity to see soldiers in the field,” he said. “They engage with those soldiers … have an opportunity to see some of the training events soldiers go through. All of them are volunteers and are very emotionally invested in the success of this program.”
Being able to give at least a little bit back and show appreciation is a main draw for the players, said Bjugstad, a former standout at the University of Minnesota, first-round draft pick and Mr. Minnesota Hockey in 2010.
“Just meeting the military and seeing what they get to do on a day-to-day basis is really intriguing,” he said. “I can’t believe all the hard work they put into it and can’t thank them enough.”
This was the fourth visit to Camp Ripley through Defending the Blue Line and remains a popular event.
“Usually when the invite goes out to go up to Camp and do some neat stuff down range and visit with the troops, we get a lot of volunteers,” Hudella said. “They love it. It’s usually a day trip, go down range for a little while and spend some time with the families.”
The following day, the players skated in a charity game held at the University of Minnesota, with $50,000 raised for the organization.
To help cover the high costs of youth hockey, Defending the Blue Line provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment for military kids, pays grants to help cover association hockey costs, provides NHL game tickets for whole families of service members and runs hockey camps.
Defending the Blue Line will return to Camp Ripley, Aug. 18 – 21, featuring its second annual Warrior Camp.
Kids will stay on post for free at the Camp Ripley Training Center, participate in two skating sessions each day and take part in fun military activities in the evening, allowing children of military members to experience what their parents go through while furthering their love of hockey.
“This whole program is (Hudella’s) brainchild and it’s gone national,” Donovan said. “Almost every professional NHL organization is participating in this now.”