To continue enjoying all the features of Navy Federal Online, please use a compatible browser. You can confirm your browser capability here.

It’s not every day that someone thanks David Wezniak for saving his life.

But it happens often enough that it fuels the Florida Veteran’s faith in the healing powers of sport—and of hockey in particular. It’s almost as if the game itself is a miracle on ice.

Every so often, teammates will pull Wezniak aside and quietly thank him for welcoming them onto the Jacksonville Icemen Warriors, one of numerous teams in a national league for injured and disabled Veterans—and one of four that participated in the 4th Annual Veterans Showcase Hockey Tournament hosted by Navy Federal Credit Union.

These players thank Wezniak for giving them something to focus on and to look forward to, a literal and figurative goal to work toward and even, sometimes, a reason to live. “You’re my hero,” Wezniak recalls a teammate confiding in him after joining the team. “You saved my life.”

When these words come, Wezniak nods in understanding. He’s walked in their shoes. He’s served in their boots. He’s skated on their blades.

And he’s seen the venerable stick sport work its magic on mental health.

Years ago, Wezniak was serving in the U.S. Marines when a close friend and colleague died by suicide while the two were on leave for the holidays. Upon hearing the news, Wezniak spiraled into depression and eventually developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Literally, I can relate,” Wezniak confesses, “because I’ve been in their situation.”

Hockey was his lifeline.

After leaving the Marines, he joined a suicide prevention program that uses the sport as a tool to improve mental health. “It saved me from that side of the tracks,” says Wezniak, who grew up playing the sport on a frozen pond in his grandma’s backyard in New England. “My world changed.”

The experience inspired Wezniak to later found the Icemen, which he now supports as its vice president and director of operations. He dedicated the team’s mission to saving Veteran lives through programs to prevent suicide, which hits the military community especially hard. The suicide rate among post-9/11 Veterans is alarmingly high and surging—even as the civilian suicide rate has plateaued, according to a recent review of millions of service records. Veterans with traumatic brain injury are three times more likely to die by suicide than their civilian peers.

In its first year, the Icemen raised $2,500 for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization supporting Veterans and families. The club has since grown to more than 125 players across four teams, all of whom are eligible for suicide prevention programs and other supports. The team also supports philanthropic activities in the Jacksonville area and hosts family events as a way of reducing stigma around mental illness in the Veteran community.

Once-in-a-lifetime event

The team’s accomplishments on and off the ice earned it a coveted spot in Navy Federal’s invitational tournament on Friday, February 16. As part of the tournament weekend, the Icemen and three other all-Veteran teams from around the country attended a welcome reception and dinner on Friday, followed by the Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series™ games at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where they received a special in-game shout-out. 

Navy Federal’s partnership with the NHL, and its creation of the Veterans Showcase tournament, is “a natural, authentic fit,” says retired Navy Captain Keith Hoskins, Executive Vice President of Branch Operations at Navy Federal. “We share the core values of service, integrity and community with the NHL and its fans. We’ve also seen firsthand how our Veterans love the sport of hockey.”

The Icemen were “super excited” to take part in the once-in-a-lifetime event, says Wezniak, a long-time Navy Federal member who noted that players ordered custom ties, socks and pocket squares in anticipation of the trip. So, too, were members of the three other teams that went to New Jersey last month. Arriving from neighboring New York and farther afield locales in Texas, Colorado and Florida, the four teams were selected to participate from among some 200 applicants. 

All were eager not only to attend the all-expenses-paid tournament weekend but also to showcase their love of the sport and its curative effects on the military community.

Photo credit: Long Island Warriors Veterans Hockey Team

“One of the biggest benefits to the program is that people are getting healthier,” says Tom Donaldson, a New York City cop and president of the board of directors of the Long Island Warriors Veterans Hockey Team. In addition to supporting players’ mental health, the sport has helped players exercise regularly, eat more nutritious foods, combat addiction and even find stable and secure housing after bouts of homelessness, he says.

Deeper than that, though, are the bonds the Veterans form with each other. “There’s an amazing camaraderie that hits right away,” Donaldson says. “Somebody can jump right in on Day One and feel welcome, even if they’ve never skated before.” One of the highest compliments his team has received came from a rival who assumed the players had been together for years, when, in fact, they’d only teamed up a few months prior. Hockey is the “ultimate team sport,” Donaldson says. “It brings people together.”

The ultimate team sport

Others echo the point.

“We have a real close brotherhood,” says Chris LaValley, captain of Dallas’s Lone Star Warriors Hockey Club and former U.S. Army sniper who now suffers from chronic back and neck pain due to accumulated injuries, as well as PTSD. “It’s a family. They become more than just teammates, more than just a guy on your bench. That’s your brother right there next to you.”

Chris Hunt, vice president and treasurer of the Colorado Warriors Hockey Club, agrees. “Guys in the military go work in the civilian world and the language is different, and the environment is not the same. A lot of guys miss that. We try to harness that, and everyone loves it.”

Hunt points to a recent incident in which a player hit a divot on the ice and fell while away from home on a tournament. The player fractured his tibia, fibula and ankle—and required emergency surgery in order to walk again. A teammate immediately canceled his return plans and took an extra two days of leave from his job to support him. He checked them out of their hotel, gathered their belongings and rented a room at another hotel at personal expense. After surgery and a day of recovery, the men returned home together—yet another example of the lengths these teammates go to support each other.

Those bonds were on full display at last month’s Veterans Showcase.

An ice rink is a world away from a war zone. But though the uniforms, the equipment and the setting may differ, players say that military service and the sport of hockey are both ultimately about a collective struggle toward a shared goal, an experience that helps warriors heal from all manner of wounds. Travel tournaments only intensify the bonds.

“We get quality time with the guys, learn who they are, what makes them tick,” says Hunt, a former combat medic who takes spare time to help teammates file claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “We get a real deep connection.”

Photo credit: Lone Star Warriors Hockey Club

First image courtesy of Jacksonville Icemen Warriors.

A version of this article first appeared in Homeland Magazine.


This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.