Chicago Blackhawks Warriors offer a hockey home for U.S. military members

By Ross Forman

Kevin Sharwarko was skating for an Oak Lawn house league team that played host years ago to a team from Sweden. The locals lost. In fact, they were annihilated, Sharwarko recalled of the 13-1 defeat.

Sharwarko scored the lone goal for Oak Lawn and that lopsided loss still remains one of the most memorable games of his brief youth hockey career in the mid-1990s, which included a season as captain for his Chicago Blues travel team.

His other memorable on-ice memories center around the United Center and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sharwarko has, you see, skated several games at the United Center, which he tagged as, “a very surreal experience.” Sharwarko also skated with and against the Blackhawks Alumni Team this past spring in Mt. Prospect, including time on the ice alongside Stanley Cup champion Ben Eager and others.

Sharwarko skated for the Chicago Blackhawks Warriors Team against the Blackhawks Alumni Team, a high-scoring game that certainly spotlighted the strength of Chicago’s NHL team.

“Hockey really is the greatest sport, it has a lot of positive impacts in a person’s life, but even more so from the Blackhawks Warriors and (the team’s) injured veterans,” said Sharwarko, 35, who lives in Schaumburg and spent 10 years in the U.S. Army, with three deployments, until forced medical retirement.

“Hockey compiles a lot of smaller independent skills and makes you use them all at once. For example, you must be able to balance on skates and shift your weight. I personally have some balance issues from my injuries. It was 18 years since the last time I skated before joining the Blackhawks Warriors. Learning to skate again helped a lot with my balance off the ice, too.

“The hand/eye/foot coordination required to play hockey is a great way to exercise your brain too; it makes you react quickly to an ever-changing situation, just like combat. The cardio involved is always good, too, (as) a lot of our players have lost a significant amount of weight since joining and combining it with making healthier decisions at home with diet and exercise. For some, it gave them a reason to start doing cardio again since being out of the military.”

Sharwarko has been a Blackhawks Warriors skater since the team’s founding in 2015.  He is now the team captain and plays center.

“As for the team, we are a family and family is always good to have around you to celebrate the good times and (also be) there in the hard times,” Sharwarko said. “I think the biggest help hockey (offers) is, once you hit the ice, you forget about everything else.  You refocus all your energy into being on the ice, playing your best and suddenly there’s no more thinking about bad memories, no anxiety, no stress, and a bit of that adrenaline rush that is so hard to match from combat.”

Sharwarko left for the Army’s Basic Training in Fort Knox, N.Y., on March 3, 2003. His first military duty assignment and home station of first two deployments was the 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

“My MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) was for HVAC, and I also had a secondary specialty with electrical power plant, maintenance and repair for the Patriot Missile Units. I also did on-the-job training with explosive ordinance disposal in Baghdad during my second deployment,” said Sharwarko, who was deployed for 12-months in Mosul (Iraq), with close to 200 missions.

His military tours also went to Baghdad and Kuwait.

He was medically retired for injuries sustained through three deployments, including a spinal fusion with disk replacement, PTSD, TBI and severe nerve damage.

Serving Those Who Served

The Chicago Blackhawks Warriors was founded in 2015 in conjunction with USA Disabled Hockey to give 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 the country.

The team relies solely on fundraising and charitable donations for its season that runs from September through April, concluding at the annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival, held earlier this year in San Jose, Calif., and in a different city every year.

The Chicago Blackhawks Warriors compete at the Festival against other Warrior teams from across the U.S.

“Everything about the organization is special. From the great support of the Blackhawks to the people running the behind-the-scenes stuff to make it all happen,” Sharwarko said. “There’s a saying: going to war is easy; coming home is hard.

“I was and am a bit anti-social after the military, and the Blackhawks Warriors have helped bridge that gap from the military world back into to the civilian world. It’s great to see how much some people have improved in other areas of their lives since being on the team, too. I get a lot of positive feedback on how much of an impact the team has had on them.”

The bond among teammates might be new, but lasting. As if they’ve known each other their whole lives.

“Although we didn’t all serve together, we understand what each other has gone through, and is going through. I’d like to think that we’re (like) a big family,” Sharwarko said.

In the team’s first appearance at the Festival, the Blackhawks Warriors had only nine qualified players. The team is now around 30.

“All our players are dedicated to improving. Sometimes progress is slow, but it is always moving forward. It’s great to see the improvements continue up and down the bench,” Sharwarko said.

Jim Smith and JJ O’Connor, Chicagoans who both serve major executive roles for USA Hockey, serve as the General Managers of the Blackhawks Warriors.  Rich Jecman is the head coach and his son, Pat, is the assistant coach. Rich’s wife, Kathy, and daughter, Danielle, also are prominent team supporters.

The team’s alternate captains are Justin Wigg and Jacob Blome.

The Blackhawks Warriors are now an all-male team, but open to females joining and have had female players in the past, Sharwarko said. Players range in age from their early-20s to their late-40s. Skill-level is wide-ranging, too. Some have never played or skated before joining; whereas Wigg played junior hockey.

The team is a mix of military branches, yet mostly Army and Marines. And all different ranks and a vast range of service dates and number of deployments.

Many of the Blackhawks Warriors have PTSD/TBI related injuries.

Others have more physical injuries from combat and gun-fire.

“We do a lot of benefit and charity games throughout the season, mostly with other local organizations and (against) high school teams,” Sharwarko said. “It’s another great way this organization brings communities together and has had impacts outside of our locker room.”

Take, for instance, a game it had against the Nighthawks Alumni. There was a World War II veteran for the ceremonial puck-drop and a Gold Star mother whose son died in combat attended her first hockey game. Sharwarko talked to both, “and it was awesome to see and hear that they had just as much fun being there as we did playing,” he said. “(The team) is a great way to start interaction between the communities and veterans, which helps reduce the social stigma that can sometimes be related to veterans.”

The Blackhawks Warriors take the ice at Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove on Saturday, July 15, for a full day of hockey action. There will be a tournament against Team Pareti from 1-9 p.m., and a Hornets sled hockey game at 4:30 p.m.

“The Pareti’s are a great family and have been putting on this fundraiser for veterans for longer than we been a team. This year, it is for our behalf and we couldn’t be more honored,” Sharwarko said. “There are so many great people involved that we have eight teams playing in the tournament. It’s very humbling seeing how many and how much people support us and all veterans.”

Around The Rink With Kevin “Shark” Sharwarko:

Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Favorite NHL Players, past and present: Chris Chelios and Jonathan Toews. “There are so many great (active) players, but I’d have to say Toews. He’s not hesitant about going to the front of the net; he’s dependable, and he’s a great leader on and off the ice.”

Favorite TV Show: “I don’t watch much TV, but the two shows I could binge watch are, The First 48 and Impractical Jokers.”

Favorite App: ETSY, for “hidden talents people have, and you can find some pretty cool stuff.”

Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.



Categories: Chicago Blackhawks Warriors, Disabled Hockey, Ross Forman

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