Blount: Wounded veterans put their pain on ice

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2011 - 10:31 PM

A special hockey team is the catalyst for healing and sharing a bond unique to those touched by war's horrors.


Minnesota Warriors Chris Price of White Bear

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

After returning from a year's service with the Army in Vietnam, Chris Price sat on a hilltop with several other veterans in Valley Forge, Pa., and pondered the future. While they listened to Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland speak at an antiwar rally, the men wondered how they would readjust to civilian life with the horrors of war still fresh in their minds.

"We all left kind of depressed, because we wanted to know how to get help," said Price, of White Bear Lake. "The [Veterans' Administration] had nothing for us at that time. There was no rehab. We needed help, but it wasn't going to happen."

It took four decades for Price to get the kind of support and healing he craved. His group meets once or twice a week at the Vadnais Sports Center, where they lace up their skates, tape their sticks and engage in a true Minnesota form of therapy: a hockey practice. Price, 64, is among 30 disabled military veterans playing for the Minnesota Warriors, a brotherhood on blades that sustains them in ways that civilian society cannot.

Price has diabetes caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Jason Steller, 39, damaged several vertebrae in his back and dislocated both shoulders when his vehicle was blown up by a land mine in Iraq. Other players sustained brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, shrapnel wounds and amputated limbs.

The Warriors held their first practice a year ago, when four guys in jeans took the ice. Friday, on Veterans' Day, they will play a group of local NHL alumni at the Chaska Community Center as part of a fundraising event. Through a game familiar to many of them and new to some, they have found strength, confidence and a sense of belonging that have enriched -- and sometimes saved -- their lives.

"I've played on many teams over the years, but they're just not the same," Price said. "Within the first two minutes in the locker room, you knew your back was covered in a heartbeat. I hadn't felt that since Vietnam. I wish this had been around 40 years ago, but it's a real blessing to have it now."

The Warriors sprang from the vision of Army veteran Andy Qualy and the efforts of an entire platoon of supporters. Qualy, 27, spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from injuries incurred in 2006 when his vehicle was destroyed by an explosive device in Iraq.

A Shakopee native, Qualy introduced his Walter Reed roommate Drew Hill to hockey. Hooked on the game, Hill founded the USA Warriors, a team for disabled veterans, in 2008. Two years later, Qualy teamed with Toni O'Brien, director of disabled hockey programs for Minnesota Hockey, to start a team in his home state.

The city of Vadnais Heights donated ice time at its new facility. It adapted a rink to accommodate wheelchairs and the sleds used by players who cannot stand. Donations paid for 20 sets of new pads, helmets and other gear, and volunteers put in the hours to get the program up and running.

Most of the Warriors come from the Army and Marines, but disabled veterans of all branches are welcome. The roster ranges in age from 21 to 67, with players traveling from as far as St. Cloud. A woman will be joining the team soon, and three sled-hockey players are combining with a civilian sled team until the Warriors have enough for a full roster.

The team requires no hockey experience, and players pay only for their sticks, skates and USA Hockey registration. From his own experience, Qualy knew the benefits could go far beyond recreation.

"When I came back from Walter Reed, I had a serious confidence issue," said Qualy, who sustained a brain injury and significant damage to his right leg in the explosion. "I didn't know if I could make it out here. I didn't see myself playing the game again because of the rods and pins in my leg.

"I was able to motivate myself to start playing again in a men's league, but there was something missing. I wasn't connecting with anyone, because they had no idea what I'd been through. This was an opportunity for me to step up in the veterans' community. This could meet some of their baseline needs: to exercise, to have a social outlet to get them out of the house, and to give them the confidence they can succeed in civilian life."

According to Qualy, being part of the team has given players more energy, enhanced their work and family relationships and widened their social networks. Price finds the physical exertion helpful in working through lingering emotional scars. Warriors president Heidi Pierson said some players were isolated or suicidal before joining the Warriors; as their lives have been changed, so have those of their teammates, who find purpose in guiding them to veterans' services or just lending a sympathetic ear.

Steller was a Navy lieutenant when he was injured in 1993, during his third tour in Iraq. He had been told he would never get out of a wheelchair, but he joined the Warriors eight months ago, participating again in a game he first tried at the age of 4.

"You have a bond in the military, and when you come back and work with other people, they don't get it," he said. "Here, you don't have to explain yourself to anyone. We all have something in common besides hockey, and we all have our ghosts that we carry. We're one big family that will always be there for each other, and that's nice."

Qualy's goal is to expand the program to Duluth and Fargo/Moorhead in the coming years. He's also looking forward to playing again with his brother Kevin, a Warriors teammate now deployed in Iraq.

"We want to make this accessible for as many disabled vets as possible," he said. "This is about more than hockey. To see the impact this has had on people, it's amazing."

Rachel Blount •

  • related content

  • Chart: Charity hockey game

    Tuesday November 8, 2011

    The Minnesota Warriors, a hockey team for disabled veterans, will team with NHL alumni for a Veterans' Day fund-raiser.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Tampa 6 FINAL
Philadelphia 2
LA Clippers 96 FINAL
Chicago 86
Cleveland 103 FINAL
Houston 105
Golden State 106 FINAL
Boston 101
Philadelphia 74 FINAL
Indiana 94
Portland 110 FINAL
Sacramento 99
Charlotte 98 FINAL
Orlando 83
Oklahoma City 108 FINAL
LA Lakers 101
New Orleans 99 FINAL
Denver 92
Los Angeles 2 FINAL
Winnipeg 5
Tampa Bay 3 FINAL
Florida 4
Columbus 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 5
Toronto 0 FINAL
Washington 4
Anaheim 3 FINAL
Dallas 1
St. Louis 5 FINAL(SO)
Vancouver 6
Connecticut 81
Quinnipiac 65 FINAL
Manhattan 69
Fairfield 56 FINAL
Niagara 57
Marist 49 FINAL
Rider 59
Iona 60 FINAL
Saint Peters 68
Oregon State 56 FINAL
California 73
South Florida 55 FINAL
Houston 72
Marquette 66 FINAL
Providence 77
Michigan State 61 FINAL
Wisconsin 68
Siena 57 FINAL
Monmouth 63
Pittsburgh 66 FINAL
Wake Forest 69
Oregon 73 FINAL
Stanford 70
Purdue 61 FINAL
Ohio State 65
Arizona State 81 FINAL
Colorado 87
Washington St 67 FINAL
Georgetown 66 FINAL
Providence 81
Binghamton 50 FINAL
Elon 65 FINAL
Hofstra 58
Virginia Tech 47 FINAL
Boston College 49
(8) Louisville 59 FINAL
Virginia 75
Texas 69 FINAL
West Virginia 76
Creighton 53 FINAL
Villanova 61
Seton Hall 85 FINAL
Butler 76
UNC-Wilmington 76 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 65
(5) Maryland 69 FINAL
(25) Northwestern 48
Saint Josephs 67 FINAL
La Salle 55
Louisiana Tech 53 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 60
Rhode Island 70 FINAL
Massachusetts 78
Richmond 55 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 49
Davidson 46 FINAL
Fordham 54
St Bonaventure 43 FINAL
Duquesne 51
George Mason 45 FINAL
(22) George Washington 80
Indiana 60 FINAL
(20) Rutgers 71
(12) Texas A&M 63 FINAL
LSU 80
Ole Miss 47 FINAL
(11) Miss State 55
Clemson 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 61
Maine 47 FINAL
New Hampshire 61
Vermont 48 FINAL
Albany 76
Quinnipiac 87 FINAL
Monmouth 48
Saint Peters 47 FINAL
Siena 64
(4) Notre Dame 67 FINAL
NC State 60
Wisconsin 62 FINAL
Penn State 56
Stony Brook 49 FINAL
Hartford 56
Northeastern 47 FINAL
William & Mary 62
St Johns 61 FINAL
Xavier 74
James Madison 74 FINAL
Delaware 71
Towson 45 FINAL
Drexel 50
Illinois State 50 FINAL
Bradley 60
Southern Ill 74 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 70
Northern Iowa 54 FINAL
Wichita State 66
Minnesota 76 FINAL
(17) Iowa 92
(15) North Carolina 80 FINAL
(16) Duke 81
Alabama 73 FINAL
Auburn 80
(9) Florida State 69 FINAL
Miami-Florida 55
Arkansas 41 FINAL
Missouri 57
Georgia 52 FINAL
Florida 45
Dayton 95 FINAL
Saint Louis 68
Drake 57 FINAL
Missouri State 86
Colorado 46 FINAL
(10) Arizona State 59
(19) Stanford 55 FINAL
Oregon 62
Marquette 82 FINAL
DePaul 99
Southern Miss 66 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 60
Vanderbilt 49 FINAL
(6) Tennessee 79
(2) South Carolina 56 FINAL
(13) Kentucky 67
Utah 41 FINAL
Arizona 64
Ohio State 78 FINAL
Nebraska 60


question of the day

Poll: With Adrian Peterson's suspension overturned, what should the Vikings do?

Weekly Question





Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters