Janice Harmon has been thrust into the role of a single parent. She manages a home, works as an operating room nurse and makes sure her son and two daughters get to school and their various sports practices.
But Harmon is not a single mother; she is married to an Air Force officer who is deployed overseas.
The Harmons are not alone in their situation. Families around the country are frequently bidding farewell to their loved ones as they head abroad, cutting the parental duo in half. But for families with children enrolled in hockey programs, support comes in the form of coaches and other parents who create a welcoming and supportive community.
“I actually love it,” Harmon said of her hockey community. “The moms and the dads are just so … it’s fun. It’s a good support group.”
Harmon and her three youngest children, Jodie, 9, and 7-year-old twins Matthew and Kellie of Monument, Colo., aren’t new to military deployments. Lt. Col. Steve Harmon, an instructor at the United States Air Force Academy, was deployed for six months last year, leaving Janice to make sure Matthew got to hockey practice and his sisters to swimming, tennis and volleyball practices. (Another daughter, Nikita, 19, is attending Western Michigan University.)
It is a tall order for one person to balance the multiple schedules, but she’s found that fellow Colorado Rampage hockey parents are willing to lend a hand.
“Sometimes they’ll know if I’m running between my daughters and swimming, and I’m coming in late,” Harmon said.
Being everywhere at once isn’t easy, as Julie Bell of Spring Lake, N.C., can attest. She has two sons, Connor and Austin, playing on separate travel teams. At least she knows she can count on other members of the East Coast Eagles Hockey Association to help out when her husband, Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Bell, is away.
“Last year I would drop the boys off, and one of the parents would take the younger one [Austin],” Bell said. “They would get him back to the hotel, give him lunch and let him play with his teammates instead of waiting at the rink for his brother to finish.
“With two boys playing and having just one parent it is definitely difficult.”
Natalie Kane and her son Jarod, a goalie for the East Coast Eagles, make the 70-mile commute from Fayetteville to Raleigh, N.C., several times a week for practices and games. The Kanes rely on their hockey family, especially when the Eagles have back-to-back weekend games, and she can’t make the trip.
“Everyone says, ‘You have your military family,’ and I do, but I rely on my hockey family more,” Kane said. “They’re very accommodating and very helpful.”
What makes these communities so special is that their compassion extends beyond offering rides or a place to stay for the night.
Prior to 1st Sgt. Donald Kane’s deployment from Ft. Bragg to Iraq, his son’s hockey team chipped in and bought the family tickets to see the Carolina Hurricanes and a gift certificate for dinner. It was a chance for the family to have a night out before being apart for several months.
Jill Nugin, family advocacy coordinator for Army Community Services at Ft. Carson Army Base in Colorado Springs, said having communities for families to fall back on in times of separation is vitally important.
“It’s probably one of the make-or-break things between families that survive deployments and remain in good shape, and families that struggle with it more,” Nugin said.
Although Harmon’s daughters seem to be handling the deployment well, the situation is noticeably more difficult for Matthew. He and his father have bonded over hockey, with Steve attending every practice and game and even learning how to play the game with his son.
“He [Matthew] does really well in front of everybody, but then he’ll come home after a game or something and in the backseat of the car he’ll be like ‘I sure wish Dad could’ve saw that,’ ” Harmon said, adding that her husband is nearly always at the glass, cheering on their son.
Lt. Col. Harmon, missing the beginning of his son’s hockey season for the second year in a row, echoes Matthew’s feelings.
“I miss him, and I miss playing with him. One of the biggest things about deploying is missing his games,” Lt. Col. Harmon said prior to his deployment to Qatar.
But knowing there is a hockey community in southern Colorado, to look after his family eases the pain of departure.
“Hockey makes a big difference. … Having a team full of boys and coaches that are dads … it makes me feel good that he’s being taken care of,” Harmon said.
“As a dad I cheer him on, pat him on the back when he’s doing great. I like to give pep talks in the locker room, but the coaches and other dads will do that.”
While the other parents and coaches realize a child’s father can never be replaced, they do their best to stand in for Dad while he’s away.
“They’re really supportive,” Janice Harmon said. “And his coach [Jeff Wilson] is the same coach Matthew had last year, and he’s aware of the situation because he was fatherless last year, and now again. So he’s got really good encouragement.”
The other dads on the team will check in with the boys to see how they’re doing and if their skates are sharpened, Bell said, adding that sharpening her son’s skates never even crossed her mind.
While it is still several months before her husband returns home, Harmon can rest a little easier knowing that she has a caring community to fall back on. In the meantime, Matthew is practicing to impress his dad when he comes home.
“I’m working on my wrist shots,” he said. “It’s pretty fun, but every time I’m shooting pucks I’m used to my dad just being right by my shoulder.”