The Chicago Blackhawks Warrior ice hockey program was founded in 2015 in conjunction with USA Disabled Hockey by JJ O’Connor, USA Hockey Disabled Chair and Jim Smith, USA Hockey President to give our injured military members and veterans an opportunity to play hockey in an environment that suited their needs. The program trains them in the skills needed to use hockey as a rehabilitation tool to overcome physical and mental disabilities sustained in their service to our nation.
JJ and Jim worked with the local Wounded Warrior Project to initially recruit members for the Blackhawks Warriors. O’Connor and Smith, founders of the Hornets Sled Hockey program, reached out to fellow Hornets volunteer, Rich Jecmen to serve as head coach for the Blackhawks Warriors.
“I feel as though it is my duty and a great privilege to give back to our veterans for all they have sacrificed for us,” said Jecmen.
The Blackhawks Warriors team members suffer from a myriad of disabilities from physical injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The Warriors strive to help our returning military men and women to reintegrate into civilian life.
“The Blackhawks Warriors gives these veterans the camaraderie of being on a team, similar to the team they served on in the armed forces. It’s a win-win for everyone,” said USA Hockey’s President, Jim Smith.
“Reintegration is the biggest problem veterans’ face,” says team captain, Kevin Sharwarko who served in the Army from 2003-2013. Sharwarko was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, from 2004 through 2005, served a 15-month deployment in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007 and was in Kuwait in 2001 with air missile defense. “When you are in the military, you are surrounded by people doing the same thing. People who understand what you are going through. When I came home I felt like I stood out; I didn’t want to leave my house. The Blackhawks Warriors gives me a sense of belonging. It’s a comfort knowing that I am sharing a locker room with guys who know what I’m going through…we don’t have to put on a façade that everything is okay. I don’t know where I would be without this team.”
“We will never fully understand what these guys have been through,” says Jecmen. “It doesn’t matter in which branch of the military they served; there is a special bond…they put their lives in each other’s hands. It’s very gratifying to see the players come out of their shells. It’s amazing the change I’ve seen in our players in just two years.”
Jacob Blome, one of the Warriors’ alternate captains, says hockey is “a safe haven in a world of unknowns”.
Blome joined the Army National Guard in June of 2001 and was deployed for 13 months to Baghdad in March of 2003. After separating from the Army National Guard, he then joined the Air National Guard in April of 2007 and was deployed to Kyrgyzstan (January-September 2009) and Bagram, Afghanistan (January-November 2011). He medically retired in July of 2015.
“Hockey means EVERYTHING to me!” says Blome. “It draws you out of that PTSD bubble. Reintegration to civilian life is hard. At my lowest point I didn’t leave my house for a month and a half…except to go to practice. I drew from my personal positive experiences at practice and translated that to my life. Hockey is a band of brothers.”
It’s interesting to note that the leader (Rich Jecmen) of this “band of brothers” has never served in the military.
“One of the great things about Rich and his son, Pat (who is an assistant coach) is that although neither of them are veterans…the understanding and respect they give to us is not matched by anything I’ve ever known,” said Blome.
Justin Wigg, Warriors alternate captain, agrees, “Hats off to Rich and Pat! They give so much to our team.”
Wigg is a Marine Corp veteran, serving from 2002-2006. He was deployed twice to Iraq (2004 and 2005). He was also deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Santiago, Chili.
“I’m also super appreciative to Jim Smith and JJ O’Connor, for getting the Blackhawks Warriors started,” added Wigg. “The Warriors provide camaraderie and the opportunity to share stories with guys that understand. I’ve made lasting friendships with people I would never have met.”
Sharwarko, Blome and Wigg all expressed a deep appreciation to the Chicago Blackhawks organization, who not only lend their name to the team, but their financial support too.
Thanks to the support of the Blackhawks and team fundraising efforts, there is no fee to play. Team members are provided with both game and practice jerseys as well as a team uniform at no cost.
“The Blackhawks Warriors are a Blackhawks Charities grant recipient,” said Annie Camins, Senior Director of Fan Development for the Chicago Blackhawks. “We help to alleviate some of the financial burdens for ice time, equipment, transportation and marketing initiatives. We also invite the team to play a game here at the United Center. We are incredibly grateful for the service that those in the Armed Forces provide our country and are proud to be supporters of the Blackhawks Warriors Hockey Team.”
The Blackhawks Warriors still recruit members through the Wounded Warrior Project and their newsletter; however, they have expanded their outreach by participating in local parades and setting up booths at community Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations.
One of the Warriors biggest challenges is finding teams to play. The Warriors typically play other men’s league teams, but lately have added high school teams to that list. In fact, they recently played the Lincoln Way Junior Varsity high school team in November at Flossmoor Ice Arena.
Games versus Lincoln Way, or the upcoming game against the Chicago Fire Department on Sunday, December 18th at McFetridge Ice Rink [click here for game information], not only serve the Warriors as a fundraising tool (the host teams typically have a chuck-a-puck, raffle or auction to raise money for the Warriors), but also raises awareness of the team and serves as a recruitment event.
Jecmen states, “The teams that have played the Warriors, particularly the high school teams, find that their players come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation for all these men sacrificed to give us our freedom.”
“We are so proud of our Blackhawks Warriors not only because they are amazing athletes playing the game we all love but more importantly, because of the sacrifice they have given to our country to protect our freedom so we can play this great sport”, said Jim Smith. O’Connor agrees, “”It is great to have the Illinois hockey community support these Blackhawks Warriors that have given so much support to our everyday freedom.”
PLAY THE WARRIORS
Is your men’s league, midget or high school team interested in scheduling a game against the Chicago Blackhawks Warriors? If so, please contact Warriors head coach Rich Jecmen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUPPORT THE WARRIORS
The Warriors rely solely on fundraising and charitable donations to support their program throughout the season. Donations can be sent to Chicago Blackhawks Warriors, 859 Oakton Street, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007.