‘Bigger than hockey’: Alaska Warriors Hockey brings together veterans and awareness

Alaska Warriors Hockey is coming to the Sullivan Arena with the Seawolves.

Warriors Hockey is a hockey league under USA Hockey specifically designed for military veterans of any branch who have a disability or are injured from their service.

The league was started under Challenge Alaska, a non-profit organization in Anchorage that focuses on sports, recreation and education for those with disabilities and for the community, as well.

The team at 2018's USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harker.
The team at 2018’s USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harker.
Alaska Warriors Hockey playing at the McDonald Center in Eagle River. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harker.
Alaska Warriors Hockey playing at the McDonald Center in Eagle River. Photo courtesy of Brandon Harker.

Word of mouth from players helped make the team so big. The league was brought to life in Alaska in 2017. Though only two years old, the team has grown to 70 players and is still expanding.

“It’s been cool that the guys are making connections and building that bigger social network through the program,” Brandon Harker said. Harker is a therapeutic recreation coordinator for Challenge Alaska.

“When [players] found out about our program and that they could play with other disabled vets that understood them, that were going through similar experiences, they had similar stories, that became like a draw for them, like ‘oh, these guys get me, they know me,’” Harker said.

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With a large number of veterans and current military members in Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska, it seemed like a “natural fit” for something like Warriors Hockey to be brought to Alaska. Challenge Alaska received a grant from USA hockey and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, to start a Warriors Hockey program, one of five programs across the country chosen for a start-up grant. Challenge Alaska is the state representative of disabled hockey; their other programs include Alaska Avalanche Sled Hockey team and Alaska Avalanche Special Hockey team.

In June 2018, the VA released a data report showing that, on average, 20 veterans die by suicide per day in the U.S. Programs like Warriors Hockey aim to bring together those who have served the country and who are going through comparable situations while bringing awareness to the alarming statistics and encouraging community with one another.

“It’s bigger than hockey,” Harker said. “The VA is trying to get away from opioids and pain meds so they’re trying to find healthy alternatives to keep people active and healthy, and those can have long-term effects exponentially.”

Some of the players have been away from hockey for a while and are now getting back into it; some have never played before. The team made it to nationals, placing second in the B division at the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in April 2018.

For me, the Alaska Warriors is a place where I feel like I belong. It replicates the camaraderie and unit-like cohesion that a lot of veterans miss after leaving the military,” Nathaniel Gostelli wrote in an email.

Gostelli served in the U.S. Air Force for six years and has been playing on the Alaska Warriors’ team since January of 2017.

UAA Seawolves Hockey is now partnered with Alaska Warriors Hockey, like a “brother” team, according to Harker.

The team will be a part of “Warriors Weekend” at UAA’s home games against Michigan Tech, Jan. 25-26. Sports fans can skate and meet the Seawolves hockey team and the Warriors after Saturday night’s game.

“In hockey, you all speak the same language … so it’s cool to have that connection with the Seawolves team and our team and help spread the word at the games,” Harker said.

For more information on Alaska Warriors Hockey and other disabled hockey teams, visit ChallengeAlaska.org and click “disabled hockey” under the programs tab.