The Long Island Warriors ice hockey team offers camaraderie and connection to military veterans on the Island. Credit: Newsday/Linda Rosier Steven Pfost

On a recent summer night, two dozen military veterans strapped on their helmets and protective gear for an evening of basic training and tactics — but they weren’t readying for a mission into a combat zone.

Instead, they had gathered at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset for a night of skating, puck-handling drills and slap shots — all part of the twice-monthly practices hosted by the Long Island Warriors, an ice hockey team for veterans with service-related physical and mental health conditions.

The team, formed in October 2020, is the local chapter of the USA Hockey Warrior program, a nationwide initiative to keep disabled vets active and connected to one another.

“This is about getting veterans back to structured exercise, fun and camaraderie,” said team president Tom Donaldson, 38, of Coram. “We have players who never stepped on the ice before and they improve every month, every year. Others have played most of their lives.”

Many of the players credit the team with helping them lead healthier lives and giving them a renewed sense of belonging. Donaldson said at least one player was deterred from suicide because the Warriors were there to offer peer support, which he said is key to the long-term mental health of veterans.

Long Island Warriors hockey players Sandee Guarin, left, and Dan DeCarolis...

Long Island Warriors hockey players Sandee Guarin, left, and Dan DeCarolis during a team practice session at the Islanders Iceworks rink in Syosset. Credit: Dawn McCormick

Nearly every branch of the military is represented among the Long Island Warriors, which has about 80 members. Some played prior to their service and are reconnecting with the sport; others only picked up the game at one of the Warriors’ “Veterans Try Hockey for Free” events. Despite differences in their branch backgrounds and hockey skills, players said they have formed a family-like bond.

In fact, some of them are family. Marc Guarin, 55, of Rockville Centre, played intramural hockey in college and now captains the Warriors’ orange team, composed of mostly newcomers. Guarin’s wife, Sandee, who served in the Air Force Reserve for 12 years, said she saw her children enjoying hockey so much that she wanted to give it a try herself.

“Hockey is the glue that keeps our family together,” said Marc, a Navy veteran who served for 21 years and has a wrist injury and a respiratory condition. “Sometimes we all have a game on the same day and our living room looks like a battlefield.”

“I can’t yell at him if all of his hockey stuff is on the floor,” said Sandee, 56.

Sandee and Marc Guarin get ready for a Long Island Warriors practice.

Sandee and Marc Guarin get ready for a Long Island Warriors practice. Credit: Dawn McCormick

For veterans like the Guarins, joining the Warriors offers a new avenue for teamwork and recreation, as well as a return to the camaraderie they enjoyed during their years of service.

“When Marc retired, I missed that commonality with other people in the military,” Sandee said. “It’s great to play hockey with people who have similar experiences being in the military. I really missed that.”

HOW THEY STARTED

The roots of the Warrior program date back to informal skates beginning in 2008 in Laurel, Maryland, when a group of patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center took up sled hockey, an adaptive form of the game. Soon, other disabled veterans in the area formed teams to play the traditional version of the game, known in Warrior circles as “stand-up” hockey.

By the end of 2008, the USA Warriors Ice Hockey program had established itself as an all-volunteer, nonprofit program using the game of ice hockey as therapy and rehabilitation for veterans wounded in combat. In 2012, USA Hockey, the sport’s national sanctioning body, officially launched its Warrior Hockey program as part of its “disabled discipline.”

“The USA Warriors out of Washington, D.C., started the program, then teams formed in places like Buffalo, Philadelphia and Minnesota, and it hasn’t stopped growing,” said Mike Vaccaro, USA Hockey’s Warrior program representative. “They’re all over the place.”

Vaccaro said there are roughly 50 Warrior teams nationwide, some with the backing of National Hockey League teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. The New York Islanders support the Long Island team.

USA Hockey’s national database lists nearly 1,500 Warrior hockey players, and Vaccaro believes there are at least another 1,000 active members that are unaccounted for. To compete in USA Hockey-affiliated Warrior events, players must have a minimum disability rating of 10% or greater.

Many clubs practice regularly and compete in exhibition games, fundraisers and tournaments. While Warrior teams around the country vary in skill level and the help they receive from NHL teams, Vaccaro said the focus on comradeship and rehabilitation never shifts.

“Even if you haven’t been to combat, everyone has daily struggles in life, and this is therapy for us,” said Vaccaro, who served a combined 22 years in the Marines and the Army. “A bunch of vets get together to play hockey in an environment where people might deal with the same issues as them.”

Members of the LI Warriors Hockey team (pictured left to...

Members of the LI Warriors Hockey team (pictured left to right: Bobby Rossi, Toby Smith, Tom Donaldson, Sandee Guarin and Marc Guarin) find healing and friendship on the ice. Credit: Dawn McCormick

Toby Smith, of East Northport, who has a service-related ankle injury, enlisted with the Warriors while he was going through a divorce. He said he’s grateful for what he calls the “bro support” he’s found among other veterans. Joining the Warriors has made him feel more connected to his four years in the Marines, he said.

“I wasn’t active with any veterans’ groups before this, but I always felt like I should be,” said Smith, 49. “The Warriors came along and now my kids know their dad was a Marine.”

‘TEAM CHANGED MY LIFE’

Fighting back tears, Marine veteran Bobby Rossi doesn’t want to think about where he’d be without the Long Island Warriors.

“Being a part of the team changed my life,” said Rossi, 39, of Belle Harbor, Queens. “I grew up at the rink, it’s where I’m comfortable, and being with the guys is just the best.”

Rossi said he was discharged in September 2009 after serving in the infantry in Iraq. Back home, Rossi said he found himself battling post-traumatic stress disorder, concussion symptoms and a heavy drinking habit. (He isn’t alone: According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 29% of veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. In 2021, 10% of all active military members were diagnosed with PTSD.)

After surgery to correct a shoulder injury in February 2010, Rossi said addiction to prescription drugs pushed him further into substance abuse.

Rossi said he entered treatment 30 times in at least six states and lived in the New England Center and Home for Veterans, which serves veterans at risk of becoming homeless, in downtown Boston at various points between 2010 and 2015.

Members of the Long Island Warriors (pictured left to right: Bobby...

Members of the Long Island Warriors (pictured left to right: Bobby Rossi, Tom Donaldson and Toby Smith). Credit: Dawn McCormick

Having grown up playing hockey, Rossi said he missed the game during his active addiction. He said he was on hard times when his beloved Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011.

“I would look in the windows outside of bars so I could watch the Bruins on the big screens from the street,” Rossi said. “I was strung out, but I walked to Boston Garden to celebrate with the huge crowd; the shelter was down the block.”

Eventually, Rossi said he embraced recovery, met the mother of his children, moved to New York, and has been clean since 2018. While he found sobriety, he said he still felt isolated from friends and family until he learned about the Long Island Warriors via a Facebook post in the group’s nascent stage.

Rossi, a father of two, now serves as the team’s director of hockey operations. In addition to attending most Warriors practices on Long Island, Rossi said he has traveled to Florida, Texas and Washington, D.C., with the club. He assists with scheduling and hosting games, and he said his steady involvement with the team has been a key part of his recovery.

“It’s so much like my time in the Marines, where guys come from everywhere,” Rossi said. “I have a couple of things I identify as: one is as a hockey player, and another would be as a Marine.”

STILL SERVING OTHERS

In addition to therapy and recreation, the Long Island Warriors provide veterans an opportunity to continue serving.

In February, the team hosted a fundraiser for a Floral Park family who faced tough odds. Joanne Drenckhahn, an ER nurse during the pandemic, experienced severe complications after a heart transplant. Her husband, Steven, is an Air Force veteran and a former police officer who retired after a serious injury in the line of duty. The Warriors faced off against the Suffolk County Sheriff’s hockey team and raised an estimated $11,000 for the family. Other veterans’ organizations donated additional funds.

“The Town of Oyster Bay Skating Center was packed. People came out of the woodwork to help us,” said Donaldson, an NYPD officer who was deployed for combat to both Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Army. “We raised money for them, but it was incredible to host an event where they could be cheered on and be thanked by the community.”

Advanced and intermediate members also have assisted the Islanders in hosting “Try Hockey for Free” events for kids.

ENCOURAGED BY TEAMMATES

While the Warriors are bound by service, the spirit of competition also is fueling their therapy.

Brett Clinch, 35, of Medford, grew up playing hockey on Long Island and eventually played for Suffolk County Community College. Clinch, who has a spine injury, spent his Army career sweeping for mines as an indirect fire infantryman. For many years after his service ended, he said he ignored his mental health.

Brett Clinch, 35, of Medford, skates for the Long Island...

Brett Clinch, 35, of Medford, skates for the Long Island Warriors.

Credit: Brian Waksmunski

“Some guys on the team said they went to the VA for counseling and therapy for their mental health, and it encouraged me to do the same,” said Clinch. “This organization has helped me come out of some dark holes because our team looks out for each other.”

Clinch plays on one of the three Long Island Warrior teams skating this weekend at the Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow in the organization’s third annual Summer Shootout tournament. The three-day, 16-team, 32-game event pits the Warriors against all-veteran squads visiting from Massachusetts, Colorado and St. Louis, as well as one from Denmark.

As Warrior Hockey grows nationally, so does the Long Island Warriors’ desire to compete against the best. In time, players hope to enter USA Hockey’s annual Warrior Classic, held in Colorado in October and featuring 35 teams, or the first-ever national championship, which will be hosted in New Jersey in April 2024.

“The Warriors are one of the greatest things to ever happen to me,” Clinch said. “It’s humbling to play against other veterans from around the world knowing that we’re all using hockey to heal.”

ENLIST WITH LI WARRIORS

Veterans interested in joining the Long Island Warriors can contact the team at liwarriorshockey.org. All participants are required to provide paperwork confirming an honorable discharge.

While all veterans are welcome, players must have a disability rating of at least 10% to compete in USA Hockey events. Veterans are required to agree to a code of conduct and are supplied with a member handbook. New Warriors are then invited to participate in a hockey skills evaluation to determine if they are best fit for novice, intermediate, or advanced teams. 

— Matt Caputo

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